Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Flogging the language

Steve Almond at the Rumpus, on Stoner, hitting close to home, alas:

I first heard about Stoner back in grad school. I’d been on a Denis Johnson jag (weren’t we all?) and so naturally assumed the novel was a florid account of reefer madness. This is how Stoner begins:

William Stoner entered the University of Missouri as a freshman in the year 1910, at the age of nineteen. Eight years later, during the height of World War I, he received his Doctor of Philosophy degree and accepted an instructorship at the same university, where he taught until his death in 1956. He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his course.

To understand how audacious I found this opening you would have to know how loyal I was, back then, to the bromides of MFA programs: show, don’t tell, make it new, and so on. Because I lacked confidence in the stories I was trying to tell, and because those stories were half-formed at best, I was constantly withholding basic facts from the reader. It was my assumption this would beguile them. I also crammed my pieces with histrionic plot twists and quirky characters. When that didn’t work, I flogged the language mercilessly.

* * *

Oddly (this is Ed speaking again) I have read John Williams—but not Stoner. A historical novel called Augustus! We had to read it in 9th grade!

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