Category Archives: opinions

If a student can’t vomit all over their writing homework, we’re teaching it wrong. Also, the Koch Brothers are singularly unqualified to boss teachers around. Down with privatization, up with teacher organizing.

What’s wrong with John Gardner’s concept of narrative structure

This weekend I had the opportunity to read a negative review written about someone whose stories I found dazzling. The reviewer has since admitted he was wrong about the review, so I suppose the less I say about the whole thing, the better. But I was intrigued by the reviewer citing John Gardner as the example of How One Must Write.

John Gardner has been on my mind lately as one of the people who studied at the Creative Writing Workshop From Hell — run by a highly authoritarian program director who also pioneered the Creative Writing Program as Anti-Commie Propaganda. (For background, see Creative Writing Programs and the CIA Fan Club and More on the Iowa Writers Workshop.)

Did the authoritarian workshop impact Gardner’s aesthetic, and through that, the writing advice that is handed down to writers, editors, and reviewers? I don’t know.

But I’d really like to, because John Gardner and his Way One Must Write has been on my mind since 1996, when I wrote a critical essay on narrative structure for my master’s thesis. I’m including an excerpt here.

The form of a story does influence its subject. A traditional narrative structure, such as that found in many nineteenth century novels, has strong closure, in which something happens that limits the characters’ options or makes them unable to change in some way. In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner describes the story’s denouement:

“The conflict is now resolved, or in the process of resolving, either because the will of the central character has been overwhelmed or because he has won and his situation is once more stabilizing (188).”

In the first instance, where the character has been overwhelmed, the character cannot change because he or she has failed. In the second, the character cannot change because he or she has won; this is not necessarily bad for the character or the reader, but it can mislead the reader by obscuring the fact that something always happens next.

This traditional plot structure is well suited to death and marriage stories; death and marriage can both limit the characters’ options in the way that Gardner suggests they should—by making them either fail or “succeed.” However, many other stories don’t fit this traditional plot structure—especially quest stories in which the protagonist continues questing at the end of the novel. Song of the Lark, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit don’t fit this structure because the female protagonists don’t seem to be able to conclude their quests or stop their emotional and intellectual growth. That is, although they do “win,” their victory doesn’t halt or obscure their growth. Another kind of story that can’t be told using this traditional narrative structure is the story in which the characters don’t win or lose, but instead simply live in some kind stasis. For instance, in Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch, the main character, Oliveira beings the story with no real battle to fight and reaches a point in which he literally cannot go on to do anything else, either living or dying. In Hopscotch, Cortazar gives the reader the alternative of reading the novel by skipping from one chapter to another in a prearranged way. At the “end” of the novel, Cortazar directs the reader to chapter 131, then to chapter 58, then back to chapter 131 and so on, for infinity or until the reader decides to put the book down. Here Oliveira has not won. He might be said to have lost, because he has no hope, but I would argue instead that he is simply in a deadening stasis, much like the drug-addicted mother in Paley’s story.

If traditional narrative structure doesn’t provide a way for these stories to be told, it also doesn’t provide a way to keep the struggle between possibilities and limitations unresolved at the end of the story; or to show life as a process rather than an end product.

If I had this essay to write over, I would probably say many things differently. If I look at John Gardner’s book again, I would probably read it differently. But one thing’s for sure:

There is no One Right Way to make stories.

Thank goodness.

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Aside

Walk into a bookstore and pick up a highly acclaimed book. Look at the cover. Some of them have accolades like “National Book Award Winner” or “Pulitzer Prize winner.” That’s a mark of favor by the literary establishment, which includes … Continue reading

more on the Iowa Writer’s Workshop

In my post “Creative writing programs and the CIA fan club,” I talk about Eric Bennet’s essay on how Iowa Writer’s Workshop director Engle (1941-1966) procured lots and lots of money from govermental and private organizations for the explicit purpose of anti-communist propaganda. Fifty years ago, so that’s ancient history, right? Nope.

Here’s just one example of how its influence passed through various people to me. John Gardner, 1958 Iowa Writers Workshop graduate, wrote The Art of Fiction, championed by one of my professors as the authoritative volume on how to write. It’s really good in many ways. I love his concept of fiction being a “vivid and continuous dream.” But there are certain Rulez in the book that limit the types of stories that can be told.

John Gardner inspired Raymond Carver, another student of the Iowa Writers Workshop (1963-1964), and Raymond Carver was a leader in “minimalist” writing, which was in favor during my undergraduate years. He’s a great writer. My favorite: his story “A Small, Good Thing.” But minimalism leaves out a lot of things — language, intrusions by the narrator, and commie politics. How much of that was influenced by the Iowa Writers Workshop of the 1960s?

It would be an overstatement to say that Gardner and Carver took anti-communist propaganda whole cloth and passed it on. (We’ll leave that to John Irving, graduate of the late 1960s, who according to Wikipedia wrote, “This is Marxism. It’s leveling everything by decimating what works … It’s that vindictive ‘We’ve suffered, and now we’re going to take money from your kid and watch you squirm’… There’s a minority which is an open target in this country which no one protects, and that’s rich people”)

No, this is only influence, and one influence among many. But it passes on from writer to writer, from institution to institution, and its ripples will be felt for years to come.

Is our writing curriculum broken?

Preschool. My son started to write, exuberantly, exultantly.

Kindergarten. More fun with words.

First grade. Chugging along.

Second grade. Dead stop.

What happened? What changed?

We need to know that because it’s not just my son. It’s a lot of kids. It’s a lot of adults. How many people do you know who say, “I can’t write,” or “I’m a bad writer”? How many people do you know who are ashamed to share their writing with other people? What happened to their confidence?

I have two theories. First, when writing began to be graded and evaluated, suddenly it became a Thing you could Fail At. And second, the way grammar and spelling is taught makes writing Ever More Perilous.

Anybody else have any theories?

The sad and frustrating thing about my son is that he’s an advanced learner with just amazing creativity and depth of analysis. You can hardly see any of that from his writing.

He’s been making a ton of improvement in third grade. But you know what I wish? I wish it wasn’t graded at all. Or rather, I wish it was graded on the number of words and nothing else. Or the amount of time he sat and worked steadily, rather than staring off into space with who-knows-what going through his head.

In short, ideally, I would love to have a complete overhaul of writing curriculum. And to throw out some of the Common Core standards as being actively harmful to kids.

Short of that, what should I do???