I get lots of nonsense in the in-box of my email and some of it is my own damn fault. There’s a zine that seems to be a front for a scheme for separating would-be Hemingways from their lunch money (the old modelling-school con, you know: in which people who are coaxed into fantasizing beyond the harsh reality that models are born, not schooled, pay good money to pretend to be born models for a year or two) and it does a good job of showing how many bad writers are crawling around out there with nice headshots and official badges from the MFA. I subscribed years ago in order to use an excerpt in a rant about the dire state of Lit (plus ça change, yo!) and it has served me well whenever I’ve felt like revisiting my self-righteous glee in all that anti-Talent on tap. The zine is called NARRATIVE, and on its ABOUT page we find:
“Literary readers are more than twice as likely as nonreaders to vote, to volunteer, and to be active participants of the communities in which they live. They are more likely to be healthy, to be hired, to create art, and to achieve both academic and economic success. Reading encourages and develops empathy and emotional sophistication, logical thinking, clear expression of ideas, and the ability to comprehend complex and opposing thought systems. Reading opens minds and changes lives.”
Which is a fairly long way around saying that reading is a lingering middle class affectation. Ugh, says this paragraph, hoi polloi not only don’t read Jonathan Safran Foer but they eat at McDonald’s and Chick-fil-A and readily admit to both! And the jobs they have aren’t even careers! Gross! Books with delightful covers designed by the delightfully-named Chip Kidd are your anti-hoi polloi juju. Even if your hoi-polloi-hating self actually read the innocuous, TV-inspired filler between the beautiful covers of these wholly interchangeable books, it wouldn’t mean you were especially literate, just as there are hundreds of millions of supposedly dyed-in-the-wool Catholics who have no idea who that twisted coprophile Dun Scotus was. The surface is what counts. You can and should, in these cases, read books by their covers.
That Narrative zine stuffed my in-box today with the glorious news that an absolutely unremarkable potzer (I never cease to astonish myself with the Yiddish I seem to know; where does it come from? ) has won a princely chunk for his bullshit construct from the MFA hobby kit. In order to read the whole story, I was instructed to log in, but I can’t be bothered. The “teaser” intro will do.
“THE HALVERSON BROTHERS were standing hip-deep in their father’s grave when it started to snow. The snowflakes, big as flecks of ash from a forest fire, fell through the bare branches of the oak above them, salting the black Illinois earth they were tossing over their shoulders. It was a beautiful thought, your father’s grave filled completely with pure-white snow in lieu of his coffin, but they didn’t think it. They just dug and dug, the tops of their bowed heads white as if the task were aging them. If they’d stopped digging and caught their breath they could have stood there listening to the great shush of snow falling on a snow-covered farm, it was that quiet, a quiet they had yet to break with human speech. They hadn’t said a word since they’d started shoveling, not because of the exertion of digging down through frozen ground (they were farmers and knew how to handle a shovel), nor in deference to the silence, but because the Halverson brothers didn’t get along.”
Because models and writers are born that way and going to a school for either will help you to become neither, unless you are already lucky enough to have the legs for it, the potzer has deployed his obvious MFA-installed Writin’ Tricks without a writer’s ear with which to blend them neatly into the surface of the construct. It’s not, for example, the cliché of the snowflakes-as-ash (which I have used twice in the 1,000,000 words of fiction I’ve generated since 2000) which gives away his lack of talent; it’s the clunky sentence he screws the simile into which betrays him.
Helpfully specifying that the ash which the snowflakes resemble would, hypothetically, be caused by a “forest fire”, is where the potzer stumbles badly, two sentences into his prize-winning pig. Just compare the snowflakes to ash and leave it at that, potzer! “Ash” has the “evocative” image of burning built into it! By getting specific with “forest fire”, you’ve needlessly restricted the reach of the simile’s possible associations, while diverting us into a tragicomical inferno with Bambi’s mother!
Now, I’m fully aware there’s a good chance the Oedipal corpse starring in this text was a forest ranger, or died in a fire, or something equally over-the-top, but that doesn’t justify the clunky specificity of the overwrought simile: a simple “ash” would have worked much better, in any case, potzer! But you don’t know this. In the name of metrical elegance and paying a little compliment to the intelligence of the reader, you could have written:
“The snowflakes, like ash, fell through the bare branches of the oak above them, salting the black Illinois earth they were tossing over their shoulders.”
Except, I would trim the pig further.
“The snowflakes fell like ash through the branches of the oak above them, salting the Illinois earth they were tossing over their shoulders.”
Except, of course, I wouldn’t have written the bullshit at all.
Ah, these not-quite-writers with their nice headshots and badges from the federal bureau of the MFA! For them, the earth always has to be described, helpfully, as “black” and the falling snow as “pure white” (not even merely the redundant “white”)! I won’t even bother to seriously go after the irritating near-oxymoron of “big as flecks”.
Let’s see: dead father (check)… macho Americana (check)… winking allusion to fancy Modernist (check). I have an aversion to pandering, and the folksy tone-cliché of this prize-winning-pig crosses too many lines. Let’s blame the DNA in the literary spit of the pandering-hack King of Americana himself, Ray “Lish was my autotune” Carver , for the following idiotic, parenthetical riff:
“(they were farmers and knew how to handle a shovel)”
Unlike us un-manly metrosexuals. Which end of the thingy actually makes the holes? Where do you plug it in? It better have an ergonomic grip! Maybe Siri can Google it for us! Download the manual… hurry… it’s snowing (like flecks of ash from Pompeii) and the Prius is getting buried in a very big shush like some kind of unsubtle reference to a James Joyce story he wrote for his MFA…
[ed.’s note: always remember, kids, that “hoi polloi” already come with their “the”… hoi… built into them]