I’ve been looking forward to The Possessed, by Elif Batuman since reading her hilarious and touching Harper’s essay on attending a Tolstoy conference in Russia published a few months back. But reading the following quote about Batuman’s disillusionment about creative writing programs in yesterday’s NYT review, I’m tempted to consider splurging on a hardback:
“What did craft ever try to say about the world, the human condition, or the search for meaning?” Ms. Batuman asks. “All it had were its negative dictates: ‘Show, don’t tell’; ‘Murder your darlings’; ‘Omit needless words.’ As if writing were a matter of overcoming bad habits — of omitting needless words.”
I had similar feelings about workshop, and hold similar prejudices about certain trends in literature coming out of the academy these days. I hear fiction authors talk far more about, say, the structure of metaphor, than about the moral or existential predicament of their characters, and sometimes it gets depressing to hear all these fastidious little creatures go on about their backstage pulleys and gears as though the play itself were of secondary importance.
Of course, craft is indeed important–it’s important in the way that exercise is important to a goal of remaining physically fit. But being physically fit is important in a larger context, too–toward the accomplishment of physical feats. And it’s this broader context that sometimes seems, I don’t know, ignored? Sometimes it seems that too many contemporary authors are like gym addicts: just going in to obsess about their musculature as an end in itself, which practice amounts to a kind of body dysmorphic disorder as much as it does physical health.