Is Cliché the new black?

By | on January 6, 2011 | 1 Comment

JR: After reading Ken Moffett’s article over at believermag.com on Donald Barthelme’s reading list I feel incredibly inferior, as a writer, and reader.  Would it make more sense if I read these books? Or, should I even read these books?  I think Flannery O’Connor is someone I should read, and enough people swear by her to make it a reality, at least in my reading life. Flann O’Brien, yes, I get it, The Third Policeman is something that I must read, but I can’t find the time or the patience.  While I was working at Random House, I heard it said, “as long as you’re reading Jason, even a comic book, you’re doing okay.” So I guess I don’t have to read Under the Volcano? As far as Barthelme’s list is concerned, I can’t imagine reading any of it.

Maybe I can find time to read Blood Oranges by John Hawkes, and as I write this post, why on earth should I read that book? Even if a notable writer who is teaching a class is telling me I should find the time to read all of them? Should I subscribe to this man’s point of view, say, you know, if I’m in his class, then yes, but in my life? No. I guess I don’t think that will happen.  I didn’t read

Revolutionary Road until I heard it was going to be a movie, but God damn, I sure love that book now, but don’t think I would have loved it ten years ago.  I’m falling deeper into  the Don Draper as inspired by Cheever and Updike school of reading and writing, the longer I wander through my early forties.  These writers make sense to me, even Cheever’s Journals which have been an inspiring read.  I suppose it’s a fair question to ask why anyone would get an MFA in writing, and spend any time aligning themselves, and their writing to a list of books that are subscribed by a teacher? Will reading these books make them a better writer, I doubt it, but if they live their lives, that might do something, and yes, if they write every day too.  Okay, I agree, Tim O’Brien should be read, yes, he’s a great writer who hasn’t really written a bad book.  I’d suggest TomCat in Love over Going after Cacciato (on Barthelme’s list), but that’s just me, and while I’m at it, how about Ladies Man by Richard Price, that book kills.

Hank Moody of the hilarious television show Californicaton tells his students at the start of season three, that writing can’t be taught, and that you should do it because you want to, and that should be it.  But is it? Can it possibly be “it”, for all those students who want to be Jennifer Egan or Jonathan Franzen, what do you tell them as they sit in your MFA class? Do you pour the hard facts on them, that those writers are part of a wafer thin percentage that “made it”, and more than likely no one is going to read your book no matter where you went to school or who you studied with?  I suppose they don’t say that at the Iowa Workshop, or in MFA programs around the country, they just take your money, whether your writing is any good or not.  It doesn’t matter, they need people to fill their classrooms, and the world needs unpublished writers, just like it needs mechanics and gas station attendants.  What they should say: you will wait months for the agent who said they liked your first chapter to get back to you with a form letter rejection, (months being an incredibly conservative estimate, more like years), and that you won’t get a three book deal with Knopf, and Vintage won’t buy the paperback rights.  That it’s a humbling, solitary process, and that no one really cares, (even when they say they do) about your writing.  But maybe if you like it, teachers should tell you that it is enough, and Hank Moody is right.

JE tells me that I should read novels written more than fifty years ago (he says I am what I eat, he sounds like Popeye most of the time), and Moffett agrees with JE, and says that Barthelme doesn’t include his own books on the list, (modesty).  Finally, I ask you why on earth would you read these books on this list? What purpose would it serve, you, or readers of fiction that you finally did write after leaving this class?   Would it make you well rounded, or enhance your incredibly short life that was just made shorter because you took the time to read the books on this list?  -JR

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One Response to “Is Cliché the new black?”

  1. January 7, 2011

    Dennis Haritou Reply

    Okay, here’s my comment on reading older books. It sort of comes from Claude Levi Strauss who made the remark about cultures. He said the great cultural landmarks always come early in the history of a society. If you apply that to novel writing then you should read the earliest great novels that you can find since they laid the foundation. As far as I’m concerned, storytelling started with Homer and there is nothing to compare to the Iliad and the Odyssey.

    For the modern realist novel, it starts with Flaubert right? Unless you want to go further back. We know that JE favors Dickens.

    I guess our readers can offer their own suggestions and I wish they would. But set your standards high. That’s best for the learning curve, I think. And that’s my two cents. Bravo on that MFA, JR! That’s awesome.

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