falling onto the floor

The Chronicle of Higher Education is a publication I don’t look at much these days, but in today’s online issue there’s an essay by Charles Johnson (author of Middle Passage and many other novels, essays and articles). It’s called “A Boot Camp for Creative Writing.” (Note: I don’t know how long this link will work before the Chronical starts charging for looking at it, be forwarned.)

In this essay Johnson outlines his approach to teaching creative writing, both in theory and practice. It is rigorous, to say the least, and full of good thoughts and suggestions. Anybody who worked with him through this curriculum would certainly come out a better writer and thinker.

And still there are aspects to Johnson’s approach which bother me. First and foremost: his reverence for John Gardner and all of Gardner’s teachings. Johnson begins with this quote from his former teacher:

If our furniture was as poorly made as our fiction, we would always be falling onto the floor.
— John Gardner

I have, and appreciate, Gardner’s books on writing. By all accounts he was a fantastic teacher; I’m willing to believe that, but this particular quote doesn’t make that case. It’s a general condemnation, and those always set my teeth on edge. On the other hand, it’s true that Gardner’s exercises, which Johnson has adapted for use as part of his own curriculum, really are excellent.

I’m always uneasy — and, I have to admit it, suspicious — when there’s such an outpouring of unconditional love. There’s a lot of it out there for Gardner; poke one of the big names (Johnson is a case in point, but he’s in a crowd when it comes to Gardner adoration) and they’ll tell you to read Gardner. Maybe the Emperor really is wearing new clothes.

Another odd thing: Johnson lists his requirements for excellence in writing fiction:

“1) a story with logically plotted sequences; (2) three-dimensional characters — that is, real people with real problems; (3) sensuous description, or a complete world to which readers can imaginatively respond; (4) dialog with the authenticity of real speech; (5) a strong narrative voice; (6) rhythm, musicality, and control of the cadences in their fiction; and finally, (7) originality in theme and execution.”

I wouldn’t quibble with this list, but I am confused by his demand for authentic dialog and real conflicts, real people… to be followed up with the admonition that the serious writer should be reading the dictionary from A to Z .

“In class, I write a new word each day on the blackboard to see if students know it — ullage, gride, yirn, or kalokagathia — and give a “prize” (usually a copy of a literary journal) to the students whose fiction discussed that day exhibit the most delicious, perception-altering use of language.”

This link between stiltified language and deliciousness I find odd.

Mostly I am bothered by Johnson’s tenacious hold on the old-boy network; the works he cites (and this is not to say they might not be excellent, one and all) are homogeneous in a variety of ways. But it’s a thought-provoking essay, and worth reading — in my opinion.