Lessons From the Learned
Three Great Writers (Who Are Also Teachers) Give Us Their Unofficial Syllabi
Jim Shepard is the author of six novels and three collections of stories, the latest of which, the jaw-dropping Like You’d Understand, Anyway, won the Story Prize and was a National Book Award finalist. Besides writing heartbreaking, hilarious works that have been convincingly set in every conceivable milieu and told in every imaginable voice, Jim is a professor of English at Williams College.
Photo by Hillary Harvey
I almost never get a chance to teach an entire novel in my fiction-writing courses, since those courses fetishize close reading to the extent that we spend an hour and a half on, say, William Carlos Williams’s three-page story “The Use of Force.” If I had all the time in the world, though, I’d teach Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, since it may be one of the most rigorous and accessible examples of Frost’s notion that poetry is play for mortal stakes. And because it features one of literature’s most instructively unreliable narrators. It’s hugely useful for people starting out to register just how slippery and protean a notion like “reliability” can be—the way, when telling our stories, we can veer not just between the sincere and the manipulative but also along a continuum that includes everything from the repressive to the self-deluding to the pathetically optimistic.
And I’d teach Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian, too, as one of the most miraculous examples of our attempt to extend our empathetic imagination and immerse ourselves in an alien other. Because that willingness to do some of the work involved in learning how others different from ourselves work and live and think is supposed to be what the whole project of literature is all about.
Mostly, I teach stories. A lot of contemporary stories, because that’s what my students are trying to write: Amy Hempel, Raymond Carver, Donald Barthelme, Grace Paley, Ron Hansen, Denis Johnson—those sorts of people. I always return to Flannery O’Connor’s stories because of the way she so implacably animates her characters’ ethical conflicts in charged and urgently important events. One of the hardest things to learn early on is that it’s not just a matter of coming up with a sufficiently fraught and vexed conflict—I love my father, and I hate my father—since that’s an inherently static situation that could go on forever. The story also has to apply sufficient pressure to that conflict: I love my father and I hate my father, and now we’re stuck in a VW Bug on a cross-country drive. O’Connor’s great at effortlessly calling her characters to account that way: making them confront the implications of their own inner divisions.
I also always return to Isaac Babel’s stories for the ferocity of his economy and the pitilessness of his emotional juxtapositions. Get to the heart of the matter. Now. And now the next heart of the matter. And don’t pretend we don’t experience some brutal juxtapositions, in terms of affect, along the way.
And who doesn’t teach Chekhov’s stories? He’s ubiquitous on writing syllabi because most of us, not having taken part in pogroms as Cossacks, often choose to write about the less dramatic emotional revelations, and Chekhov reminds us constantly about the limitlessness of those possibilities: about just how many intensities of tenderness and anguish can be bound into the quiet gesture, providing that it’s observed with sufficient care and precision.
Mary Gaitskill, over two collections of stories (Bad Behavior and Because They Wanted To) and two novels (Two Girls, Fat and Thin and Veronica), emerged as one of the strongest and yet most delicately nuanced voices in American fiction today. Her new collection, Don’t Cry, will be published by Knopf in March 2009, and if we can assume anything from her earlier work, it will be compelling and painfully precise.
Photo by Jerry Bauer
Six books I love or would love to teach:
1) Laughter in the Dark by Vladimir Nabokov—This is a great book for writing students because it’s what I consider a transition work; you can see Nabokov developing, in an imperfect form, the art that would appear in later work as full-blown genius. His masterworks are such dazzling imitations of the living world that it is ridiculous to talk about them in terms of technique, whereas in this smaller work you can see the ropes and pulleys working behind the charming stage set.
2) Rabbit, Run by John Updike—This is a stunning achievement for a young writer, and as such is inspiring. It is especially beautiful in its linking of the random mundane with the glowing, barely glimpsed unknown. It is also worth studying because it makes any sensitive reader feel for profoundly unsympathetic characters.
3) The Human Stain by Philip Roth—This is a very interesting book to teach as much for its flaws as for its beauty; to me its strength is a great argument for the power of imagery as expressed in descriptions of the physical world. The hectoring quality of the narrative and the (to me) frankly unbelievable nature of some of the characters are dramatically compensated for by moments of deep and powerful evocation of physical life.
4) Snow by Orhan Pamuk—I have not taught this but would like to. I especially love the way he reveals character as one gets to know character in life: slowly, as an accumulation of moments and actions. Pamuk understands and respects the mystery of human beings. He is also very passionate. Of all the books on this list, Snow is the best in the sense that it is the most fully realized.
5) The Victim by Saul Bellow—I have taught this for much the same reason as Laughter in the Dark; as an early work, it is interesting to see in it the development of Bellow’s genius. I also like it for its dark, weighty quality, a tone that many students have difficulty with and mistake for sadness or depression—it’s good to draw their attention to the difference between depression and a deep sense of life.
6) Libra by Don DeLillo—I have taught this only once as a masterpiece of narrative; I particularly drew attention to the way DeLillo uses inner narrative in conjunction with action.
Rivka Galchen is a doctor as well as a teacher at Columbia and a writer of fiction and nonfiction, which has appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, and the Believer. Her first novel, Atmospheric Disturbances, was published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux this summer and it is funny and unputdownable and also deeply sad.
Photo by Aaron Harnly
Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes and the gospels according to Mark and Matthew—I’m not sure what makes a good ending, but it does seem that weddings and death just don’t swing it the way they used to 400 years ago. I’ve noticed that lots of great books don’t have great endings, not this century anyway. Even In Search of Lost Time seems not to have found its period, and of course Kafka claimed none of his books were finished. So maybe it’s an epidemic of the now: that endings are maybe harder than they used to be, and, who knows, maybe beginnings are somehow easier? But probably one of the best endings out there—something worth trying to steal from if possible—is the end of the Gospel of Mark. Jesus has been crucified, then he rises from the dead, and his followers, seeing their resurrected Lord, run away in terror. And in the gospels of Mark and Matthew both, when Jesus is on the cross, he himself seems to lose faith, calling out: “My God, why have you forsaken me?” That’s a pretty fierce way to close. It’s like the end of Don Quixote, when Quixote forsakes his life of delusional chivalry; in both cases, the hero (or antihero, however you like it) loses his faith, but he loses it too late, when the reader is already firmly converted. I think that’s a beautiful way for something to end, in a paradox like that.
Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles—Here are characters who never say quite what I think they’re going to say, and as soon as they say it, it seems obvious that was the only thing that a particular character would say. This is some of my favorite dialogue, maybe alongside that other uptight oddity, Muriel Spark. This is a great study in how people don’t necessarily mean what they say, and spend most of their time talking at a delusional idea of who the other person is, rather than who they really are, and a delusional idea of how they’re perceived, rather than how they’re actually perceived.
Collected shorts of Robert Walser—Robert Walser, a turn-of-the-century Swiss German, had extremely tiny handwriting and spent the last decades of his life in an asylum, reportedly saying, when asked about further work, “I’m not here to write; I’m here to be mad.” These shorts, not unreminiscent of the best of Pessoa, recount the small, the humble, the exuberantly unimportant, the pleasure of pants, and the sound of growing strange to this world. More prose poems than stories, the works in this collection show how immensely beautiful a project can be when completed with a tiny, soft voice and virtually no plot.
The Horned Man by James Lasdun—A brilliant study of irony, the dramatic version, the one where so much of the pleasure comes from the gap between what the character seems to believe is true and what the reader suspects is true. The narrator here makes one bad decision after another, each based on a series of faulty deductions and misperceptions, which leads to a lot of old-fashioned comedy but also elicits that ancient and ever-effective emotion of: “No, Oedipus, don’t do it, it’s your mom!”
On digression and the illusion of plot…
Moby-Dick by Herman Melville—Maybe the best example I can think of for the argument that digression is everything, is where the novel happens… and that the illusion of plot—a high-seas adventure plot even—helps you “get away” with the digression. The finest moments in this story (supposedly told by Ishmael, though he seems to have vanished by the latter half of the book) involve no harpoons or storms or great white anythings, but instead come in a lengthy meditation on the white in a painting hung in an old inn, in an examination of property law as it relates to whaling, in a wry taxonomy of whales, in a short, strange play... After Melville finished this novel—which was trashed by the critics—he said he’d let the evil out of him, and that he felt “clean.” Maybe not a bad guiding creative principle?
On the ethics of aesthetics, if there is one…
The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño—For a simultaneously thorough and madcap examination of the question of whether aesthetics translates into ethics. Imagine a Mexico City daily newspaper with François Rabelais and César Vallejo working as beat reporters, and you’ll have some sense of the Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño’s 1998 (but only translated into English in 2006) novel, The Savage Detectives. The novel is oddly moral, political, and hilarious and makes you think that impoverished failed poets just might save us. But. Even if the prophet here will inevitably be a poet, the novel profanes the religion of poetry as much as it proselytizes it. In a passage describing a gathering of Chileans on the anniversary of Pinochet’s violent military coup, a narrator remarks, “Suddenly someone, I don’t know who, started to talk about evil, about the crime that had spread its enormous black wing over us. Please! Its enormous black wing! It’s clear we Chileans will never learn.”