Monday, May 5, 2014

Completed: How Fiction Works


Have you ever had it happen that an unfortunate  (or fortunate) juxtaposition of reading material illuminates something interesting in a book?

In this case, I read this blog entry by Junot Diaz at the New Yorker, called MFA vs. POC. Diaz discusses just how unrelentingly *white* his experience was, and how the whole process grinds down men and women of color. You should read it if you haven't already.

A few days later, I picked up How Fiction Works. As you know, I had a moment of panic about only having read 2 books. Since I had started this one a few months ago, and it's pretty short, only about 200 pages, I figured it would be something I could knock off the list. It helps that I got stuck in the car dealership for a few hours on Saturday morning.

Here's the problem. I've got Junot Diaz in my brain, and it doesn't take me long to notice that that Wood is discussing is a white man. At some point, it actually became comical. You're going to write a 200 page discussion about how fiction works, and every single example is a white guy? Come on!

By the way,  lest it seems I am exaggerating, I counted. Wood mentions or discusses 68 authors. Of those,  59 are men and 9 are women (and one of those is him reading Beatrix Potter to his daughter. I wish I was fucking kidding).  He discusses: 1 black author (Ralph Ellison); a few British authors that are ethnically non-white (VS Naipaul is from Trinidad, or Kazuo Ishiguro, who is Japanese);  one Latin American author, Roberto Bolano (Chile); and a few dudes from other European countries.

I mean, really? Honestly, it was so amazing that I started to marvel at the chuzpah of the entire enterprise.

As for the actual book. It was fine. It's organized into mini-chapters, some lasting only a paragraph, and none more than a few pages. Those chapters are loosely organized into bigger umbrella categories, such as narration, characters, language, etc.

Wood is a compelling writer himself, and he does nice work illustrating the power of the close read. When I read books like this, it's because I think it keeps me sharp as a teacher. Even though I teach 7th graders, I still find myself using a lot of what I  know to lay the path for their future as readers. Given that, there was one line that made me laugh out loud, "You have only to teach literature to realize that most young readers are poor noticers" (63). Heh. And I'm pretty sure he's talking about college kids! But, it is true, the things that seem so interesting and meaty in a text are the very things that kids are most likely to miss. They don't really attend to the details at all. I often point out that to kids, reading means something like I ran my eyes over all the words on the pages. I READ it. Only it is so apparent how much they miss. They are just learning about close reading, but it's all teacher-directed: HERE. LOOK AT THIS! I'm the Mama Bird, feeding them close-reading. It's actually kind of fun, but it is also difficult. You can see that some kids just get it, while others are going to need a few more years.

Anyways. I think the myopic look at literature presented in How Fiction Words would have become apparent either way; yet, it was still painful to see Diaz's point "In my workshop the default subject position of reading and writing—of Literature with a capital L—was white, straight and male" proven so ruthlessly. 


1 comment:

  1. Dude. I could have sworn I commented on this. What good is a 2 person blog if the other person doesn't comment on your dang posts?! Sheesh.

    I can see where the white male dominance thing would be distracting (one of those "Once you see it, you can't stop SEEING it" things), but the content seems interesting.

    It's interesting to read about you talking about "close-reading" because we have often talked about the fact that you read *so fast* that you miss stuff. Do you have a "close-reading" *mode* that you can switch on when you want to pay more attention to the words?