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Rethinking the Craft of Fiction Writing: Resources on Teaching and Learning Creative Writing (January 2022): Modern Takes

By Thomas Dodson

Modern Takes

John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers is something of a modern craft classic. In the first part, “Notes on Literary-Aesthetic Theory,” Gardner articulates his aesthetic standard for fiction in any genre: a work must evoke a “vivid and continuous dream” in the mind of the reader. According to this rubric, anything that makes the reader’s dream less vivid (e.g., generalization in lieu of detail) or less continuous (e.g., a poorly chosen word that draws too much attention to itself) is a sign of bad writing. In part 2, “Notes on the Fictional Process,” Gardener provides a definition and discussion of the term “psychic distance,” an aspect of point of view: “Psychic distance … mean[s] the distance the reader feels between self and the events of the story.” This distance can range from detached and journalistic to stream of consciousness.

Another well-established craft text is Charles Baxter’s Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction. Each of Baxter’s essays considers a question not just of craft, but also of society. In a chapter titled “Defamiliarization” he observes, for example, the tendency of modern readers to morally condemn imperfect characters. Baxter argues that “in fiction, characters are under no obligation to be good; they only have to be interesting.” In another chapter Baxter offers a technique for deepening characters: “with counterpointed characterization, certain kinds of people are pushed together, people who bring out a crucial response in each other.” And in another he provides an account of the origins, appeal, and persistence of melodrama in storytelling. Writers who struggle with symbolism may find help in Baxter’s concept of “rhyming action.” Rather than deploying overt symbols, Baxter suggests a more intuitive and understated approach, presenting an image or event to the reader at an early point in the story, without much fanfare, with the intention that it be all but forgotten. The writer then brings the image back later, allowing the reader to reconsider it in the context of what has happened in the story. 

A scene in Anton Chekhov’s short story “Gooseberries” (1898) provides the title for George Saunders’s recent book on craft, A Swim in the Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life. The book includes stories by the great Russian writers Chekhov, Ivan Turgenev, Leo Tolstoy, and Nikolai Gogol, and in his insightful and companionable discussion of these works Saunders articulates his own aesthetic theories and offers practical advice. In a chapter on Turgenev’s “The Singers” Saunders suggests that in reading their drafts writers should act as “bouncers, roaming through Club Story, asking each part, ‘Excuse me, but why do I need you to be in here?’ In a perfect story, every part has a good answer.” Saunders also further develops his “gas station” model, originally sketched out in an essay in another collection.1 Saunders imagines the reader as a toy race car moving around a track, passing through a series of “gas stations” that provide bursts of energy, hopefully enough to carry the car to the next station and, eventually, to the story’s conclusion. 

In How Fiction Works, James Wood examines fiction fundamentals with chapters dedicated to narration, detail, character, language, and dialogue. Wood is best known as a literary critic, and although he poses “theoretical questions” in the book, he responds to them as a practitioner “or, to say it differently, asks a critic’s questions and offers a writer’s answers” (as he writes in the front matter). Wood’s discussion of point of view is especially acute, and he is quick to question received wisdom on the subject. Wood also has a great deal to teach the literary writer about “free indirect style,” or what is more commonly referred to in writing classes and workshops as third-person limited point of view or simply “close third.” He argues in the first chapter that “thanks to free indirect style, [the reader sees] things through the character’s eyes and language but also through the author’s eyes and language. We inhabit omniscience and partiality at once.”

In contrast to Wood, who draws on narrative theory and the history of literary realism for insights into how fiction functions, Lisa Cron looks to recent developments in neuroscience to explain how narrative texts work on the minds of their readers. As Cron outlines in her introduction to Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence, “each chapter zero[es] in on an aspect of how the brain works, its corresponding revelation about story, and the nuts and bolts of how to actualize it.” Unlike more essayistic books on craft, Cron’s chapters are clearly structured with heads and subheads, and each closes with a set of questions for the writer to consider in relation to a draft.

Literary fiction has long been defined in opposition to so-called genre fiction: horror, mystery and crime fiction, science fiction, fantasy, romance. In the Art of Fiction, for example, Gardner consistently refers to these genres as “trash” or “junk fiction,” though he concedes that they can be “elevated” by the “serious literary artist.” Benjamin Percy’s Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction refuses this distinction and considers what writers of literary realism have to learn from just the kinds of books and stories that Gardner and others wish to exclude from the halls of high culture. Realism, Percy observes, is the latecomer to the literary landscape, not to the genres it denigrates and excludes. “Look back on the long, hoof-marked trail of literature,” he urges. “The beastly majority of stories contain elements of the fantastic.” They also, not surprisingly, are marked by urgency of plot and narrative arcs.

Other notable books on general craft include John Dufresne’s The Lie That Tells a Truth: Essays on Fiction, Rust Hills’s Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular: An Informal Textbook, Ursula K. Le Guin’s Steering the Craft: A 21st-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story, and Margot Livesey’s The Hidden Machinery: Essays on Writing.

Works Cited