Feb 24, 2014

Spring 1979: Why I'm Not a Novelist

When I was in high school, I thought of becoming a writer.  After all, my friend Darry and I wrote a heroic fantasy novel back in junior high, I was the editor of our literary magazine, and I published an article in the Rock Island Argus.  

What changed my mind: Well, several things, but mostly a class in Fiction Writing, my freshman year at Augustana.  We met once a week to analyze a "model" short story or novel, and then we criticized student writing (you had to submit three times).
  
Bernard Malamud, “Black is My Favorite Color."  “Charity Quietness sits in the toilet eating her two hard-boiled eggs.”  If you still have the stomach to continue after such a disgusting opening, it's about an old Jewish guy in love with a black girl, who won’t marry him because he’s Jewish.  And old.

Student Submission: "Temperature Inversion."  A man and a woman gripe because it's too hot to have sex.

Me: "Werewolf Planet."  Two anthropologists in the future discover that a “primitive” species actually has developed intergalactic travel.  Kind of interesting, right?

Wrong.  “Terrible!  Awful!  Don't demean yourself with that sci-fi trash!”

Rule #1: Modern Literature must be about the dull, boring lives of people living in New York.

Flannery O'Connor, “Good Country People."  A Southern woman is depressed because she lost a leg as a child, so she majors in philosophy.  A traveling Bible salesman convinces her to climb up to the hayloft for a romantic evening, but instead he steals her artificial leg. Disgusting!

Student Submission: "Chicken T***s"  An adult woman has an affair with her uncle, who dumps her over fried chicken. (By the way, birds don't have t***s; "breast" is an old word for "chest").

Me: "The Island in the Sky." A boy befriends a grade-school bully, and they fall asleep reading comic books. Kind of touching, right?

Wrong!  "Terrible!  Awful! There's a happy ending!  Where's the misery?  Where's the tragedy?"  

Rule #2: Modern Literature must always be depressing, preferably with death at the end.

J.D. Salinger (left), "A Perfect Day for Bananafish."  A man kisses a five-year old girl  and then kills himself while his wife waits.  Disgusting!.

Student submission: "Hand Sandwiches." A guy's wife is cheating with his best friend, so he assaults the friend and cuts off his "hand."  

Me: "The Letter."  In the 1930s, a guy dies of polio, and his best friend keeps his last letter in his pocket at all times.  Forty years later, the friend is dying, and the ink on the letter is so faded that a nurse in the hospital thinks it's a blank piece of paper, and throws it away. .

It's about a dull, boring life, and it's depressing. A sure-fire hit, right?

Wrong!  "Terrible!  Awful!  Where's the emotion?  Where's the men longing for women?"

Rule #3: Modern Literature must always be about heterosexual desire or romance.

I went on to major in literature, get a M.A., and almost a Ph.D.  But, except for unavoidable required classes, I never read or write Modern Literature.