Pragmatism, The Art, and Publication
- Part I: What is the Pedagogical Strategy Here?
- Part II: Postmodern Tales of Show-Don't-Tell
- Part III: Will You Please Stop Writing, Please?
- Part IV: The Seven Reasons Why Writers Fail to Publish
- Part V: On to Publication and Greatness
Postmodern Tales of Show-Don't-Tell
We're not going to explore the dreary and often violent academic wars fought over postmodernism theory or the relative values of postmodernism fiction vs. modernist, etc. We're not going to debate "minimalism" vs. "maximalism" or whatever. Why? Cause we don't have to ... Remember, we're coming at the fiction writing issue from a standpoint of pragmatism--cause if you want to be a successful short story writer, this is the only "ism" that matters. The others can be saved for the arena of academic wrangling populated largely by theorists (most of whom can't write fiction!).
Nevertheless, a brief explanation of postmodernist literary belief is necessary if we are to move forward. Basically, the "Modernists" (Joyce, Faulkner, F. Scott, etc.) allegedly believed that fiction should be infused with meaning, message, or theme; whereas, the "Postmodernists" (Carver, Hempel, Barthelme) eschew/ed any and all attempts at such, the more fanatical of their followers actually believing that writers are naive or foolish if they attempt, by whatever means, to inject intentional meaning into their work. (It's debatable whether or not a writer, even one stripped to the minimalist marrow, can avoid intentionally placing meaning in a work.) The Postmodern advocate argues that all meaning derived from text, if any, is up to the reader and all "meanings" derived are equally valid (and by inference, all equally worthless). The minimalist story, in general, depends on dialogue and setting details to tell a "story," avoiding interior monologue or introspective commentary by the narrator.
These views are extreme and weighted with arrogance. The fact that some writers and teachers believe they can dismiss any and all writing that demonstrates "Modernist" tendencies towards theme and narrative interpretation of reality is astounding, and even disconcerting. By minimalist standards, even a writer as accomplished as Gail Godwin is a joke. In reality though, these debates go nowhere. The very exercise of dichotomizing or boxing writers and fiction into "isms" and camps is often futile, useless, and filled with plenty of square-into-circle ramming (i.e., intellectual fraud). As a writer, you should judge the value of minimalist or non-minimalist writing solely in the context of satisfying the art of fiction, i.e., in the context of utilizing whatever technique and subject matter best suits your current writing abilities and/or your goals.
What counts in the final analysis is simply WHAT you say and HOW you say it.
Hemingway said, "If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water."
Ok, so just what was feisty old Papa getting at? You can't possibly understand his statement entirely until you read "The Sun Also Rises" (a novel, yes, but a must). It is the near ultimate form of "show don't tell" (the ultimate form being Robbe-Grillet's "In the Labryinth"). Hemingway eschewed prosey narrative (cause he wasn't good at it--not like F. Scott or Nabokov) and focused of necessity on propelling the story forward based largely on dynamic character interaction and the depiction of lively events, e.g., acute bull mania and various wartime festivities. In the "Sun Also Rises," as the characters intermesh and verbally claw at one another, the reader perceives the weight and power of the iceberg heaving beneath the surface. The reader, in postmodern fashion, is able to draw personal conclusions about life, the universe, and everything. Papa also throws in some anomalous--and possibly symbolic--objects like a severed bull ear for the reader to apply whatever meaning strikes their fancy. Despite his egocentricity, Papa understood his strengths and weaknesses as a writer. Did Papa strive to be a postmodernist? Of course not.
For the most part, Hemingway, out of pragmatic necessity chose inherently interesting, dynamic, and colorful subject matter, thus succeeding in creating an overall story élan that kept the reader engaged. In this way, he satisfied those demands imposed by the art of fiction.
Raymond Carver, often hailed as the primal God of American minimalist postmodernist fiction, wrote lines like, "A man without hands came to the door to sell me a photograph of my house." and "That morning she pours Teacher's over my belly and licks it off. That afternoon she tries to jump out the window." This is some of his more exciting stuff. But the Carver story that always stands out in my mind is "Fat." Using the camera eye of a diner waitress, we witness a strange, gluttonous beast as he devours whatever the waitress places before him. The sheer absurdity and sense of existential drama caused by the eating behavior of this obese grotesque is enough to keep one turning the page.
The "Fat" story "works" (i.e., it succeeds in satisfying the art of fiction by becoming "good fiction") because it's power or story élan derives from the depiction of this Jabba-the-Hut grotesque. The very fact of the character's existence creates a tension or suspense that drives the narrative. In some way we are reminded of the strange characters of Sherwood Anderson--only in Anderson's case, we develop true sympathy with the characters. One can only watch the FAT MAN and cringe.
Other Carver stories that include inherently interesting subject matter, succeed, whereas his collection, "Will You Please Be Quiet Please" demonstrates the point perfectly because it is an utter failure. Edited by a former Esquire editor, Gordon Lish, this collection of "stories" is perhaps the most boring and vapid collection of work (except for Lish's own) ever to fuse unhappily into one miserable collection. It's a must read for all students of fiction writing because it illustrates perfectly how not to write fiction.
Remember also, you're not a Raymond Carver, so you can't get any old pulp published just by waving your name around!