Doing the Things You Ain’t Sposed To Do
an amusing exchange with a friend on facebook, a fellow teacher, who presently is grappling with inexperienced writers’ mistakes. She has been citing the mistakes, and then I have been firing back with examples of really good fiction that uses the “mistake” to greater ends. For instance, to “it was all a dream” I countered David Foster Wallace’s “Oblivion.” “Everyone dies in a car accident at the end” reminded me of Charles Baxter’s “Saul And Patsy Are Getting Comfortable In Michigan” (although he did bring them back to life in a later story and novel). And when my friend complained that her students don’t even know to start a new paragraph for dialogue from a new speaker, I threw down Stephen Dixon’s Interstate.
Reading it put me in mind of a beloved former teacher who intentionally pushed everyone’s dare-me buttons by passing out a list of twenty declarations about writing he called “The Rules” at the beginning of every new class, and no one ever seemed to notice amidst the grousing that Rule #20 was: You can do anything you want, so long as you can get away with it, or that none of his own stories strictly followed the prescriptive regime The Rules would imply.
This week in one of my classes, a student turned in a story that began: Here I am, facing the blank page, and someone said: You can’t do that. But I was thinking of the second paragraph of E. L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel, which goes like this:
This is a Thinline felt tip market, black. This is Composition Notebook 79C made in the U.S.A. by Long Island Paper Products, Inc. This Daniel trying one of the dark coves of the Browning Room. Books for browsing are on the shelves. I sit at a table with a floor lamp at my shoulder. Outside this paneled room with its book-lined alcoves is the Periodical Room. The Periodical Room is filled with newspapers on sticks, magazines from round the world, and the droppings of learned societies. Down the hall is the Main Reading Room and the entrance to the stacks. On the floors above are the special collections of the various school libraries including the Library School Library. Downstairs there is even a branch of the Public Library. I feel encouraged to go on.
A young woman I know once wrote a beautiful story from the point of view of a wine glass that sat in a room where a pair of lovers were ruining themselves. The teacher told her not to write from the point of view of inanimate objects, and as far as I know she never did again — a loss to our world, I think, a small but significant loss. I want to send her a copy of George Saunders’s The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, which out-social-realists the social realists by eschewing social realism for a fable about a world populated by beings made of discarded kitchen utensils and scrapyard parts. I think it’s about the United States and Mexico, my friend the lit professor says it’s about the Holocaust, my friend in Israel says it’s about Palestine and Gaza, my friend the economist says it’s about corporations, and in truth all of these readings adhere to it, plus seventy-three more, so why can’t inanimate objects be characters in stories?
(If we’re talking about the limitations of prescriptive ideas about literature, by the way, what possibilities are lost to writers who self-identify as experimental or avant garde by eschewing forever the conventions of domestic realism?, or to writers who self-identify as “literary” by eschewing forever the conventions of the genres?, or to writers who self-identify as naturalists by eschewing forever the possibility of the supernatural?)
What are you reading that breaks somebody’s shall not?