Literary Fiction

52 Faces suggested that she doesn’t like “literary fiction” and hates literary magazines and short stories, as well as MFA writing. I have to say that in some respects, I disagree. While I may not be impressed with this year’s StorySouth Million Writers Award nominees, largely because all of these stories are pretty boring, even if they are good, I think there are some amazing short stories out there. As for the StorySouth selections, I don’t see the point of several of them, such as Steinur Bell’s “The Whale Hunter,” and Nadia Bulkin’s (a very Russian name) “Intertropical Convergence Zone.” After finishing these two, I didn’t feel inspired or interested in what I just read. In contrast, reading Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain” is a constant reminder of the power of the short story. In 4 pages, he creates something incredible. Nabokov also creates something amazing in “That in Aleppo Once…”.

To address the issue of MFA writing: it’s been said by many people, so I don’t recall whom I’m quoting, that people who get an MFA end up publishing stories that are structurally sound, but boring. They’re all the same. That may be true, but there are writers who have completed their MFAs who are amazing. John Irving is one of them. Michael Chabon is another. Maybe they are exceptions, because there are many many writers out there who have MFA degrees and are struggling to publish, or are published but not renowned. These people may be the ones who are talked about as structurally sound but boring. I don’t know. All I know is that I applied to MFA programs so that I could meet other writers and write for 2 years. I didn’t apply to MFA programs for the degree or the prestige (I mean the cachet one gets in the teaching industry from graduating from a place like Iowa).

Yes, most of the fiction I’ve read in literary magazines lately has been dull.

7 thoughts on “Literary Fiction

  1. I thought the beginning was interesting, because at first it seemed like a nonfiction piece, and it had an interesting ambiguity. I guess I just wasn’t at all interested in the requisite “affair” subplot, and the ending.

  2. yes, it’s a strong statement, but more what I mean is that 25 year old has a really good track of publishing something really good by the time they are 50, or earlier, because of their MFA work. Still, it’s not a provable hypothesis.

  3. I always appreciate your comments, cause you manage to give the argument a different viewpoint, which is awesome. I have read some good nonfiction lately. One essay was published in Narrative Magazine, but I forgot who wrote it, although I do remember it included the theme of technology.

    Anyway, the problem with MFA programs, as stated by whoever it was that said this, is that they produced the “workshopped” story. That is, the story is structurally sound, but there is nothing inspiring at the core. In this sense, MFA programs may be a detriment, because all you do is workshop.

    My friend from SAIC said that the students in the MFA program will be useless at helping you or me improve. I don’t know if I agree with his cynicism, but it seems to me that his statement goes along with the idea of the “workshopped” story, which has been influenced by so many people that it has to conform.

    I don’t know if I could agree with you on the idea that a 25 year old publishing a structurally sound story is “damn far ahead” of that 50 year old woman. I can’t think of an example right now, but there are several writers who have had first publications in their forties, who turned out amazing work.

  4. I’m commenting a third time because I think this is a very interesting topic. I’ve also thought about it a lot, because I used to find myself very bored by most short stories. I really think that people are correct in their summations of some works as being structurally sound but dull. I definitely do NOT believe that an MFA will take a good writer and make him or her worse, or more generic. No way. Of course, a writer could always have a bad experience.

    The other thing to consider is that most of the writers coming out of MFAs are like 25-35, with relatively limited life experience. It could be seen as a major success that they are breaking into the publishing scene to the extent that they are. That’s what I think. I think you could say that, on the whole, their stories may be less compelling than some woman in her 50s who’s been compiling sentence after sentence her entire life, shelled up reading whoever, raising a bunch of kids, divorcing an abusive husband, whatever. But I’d say that a 25 year old publishing a structurally sound story is damn far ahead of her. That 25 year old could publish some fantastic work between age 25 and age 55.

  5. But I find some of the “best of” collections surprisingly dull. Like listening to the super-hip experimental Indy music some artsy kid has pouring from his headphones. It seems like it’s inspiring him, but God, I need a chorus.

  6. I find myself skipping fiction and looking for nonfiction. Just personal preference probably.

    The Spring 09 Southern review had a couple really interesting short stories. One I really liked by Tony Early called “Mr. Tall.”

Comments are closed.