Well, here I am, in another short story class. I wonder when they’re going to critique my story ‘Plague Journal Panda March’. Everyone will probably hate it. I wish I could write a story like her. What’s her name? Jhumpa Lahiri?
“What about you, David?” said the professor.
The language. “I really loved her language, the way she describes the characters. And the characters themselves, especially the tour guide. They were real but corky. Funny. I liked it.” Cookie-cutter answer, Davey. But that’s what we do in these classes. Discuss the language, the characters, learn a bit about published short stories and how great they are and then get down to the nitty gritty—a whole three months of ‘amateur’ stories. Why am I here? Does she think we’re ever going to write as good as Lahiri?
“This is true. It’s a great story. What about there on page 37, though? Do you think she should’ve had the tour guide, Mr. Kapasi, go on and on like that?”
“Well, the way she had Mr. Kapasi go on like that. Couldn’t she have just told us using a couple of lines of narrative. Why were all those lines of dialogue necessary? I don’t think it was necessary at all. Seems she’s getting too wordy there.”
“I don’t know.” What’s she doing? Was she questioning the choices the author had made? But this is Jhumpa Lahiri! I’m pretty sure she’s won a shit ton of awards, if not all of them. They made that movie from that book of hers.
“I thought it seemed kind of slow there,” a woman in our group said. “I thought I read somewhere that you’re only supposed to…” Yada yada yada, wait a minute, wait a minute, waitaminute! Is everyone insane? She can’t be wrong, this is published! Isn’t it perfect? Isn’t that why it was published?!
“Mr. Barnish, you look somewhat confused. Did you think she was correct in using all this extraneous dialogue at this part?”
“No. Yeah, I mean. But this is…”
“This is what?”
“This is a great story, you said it yourself.”
“Yes, but it’s not perfect. No story is perfect.”
“But it’s published.”
“And thank you, Mr. Barnish, for proving the point of this exercise. No story, class, is perfect. Even if it is published. No. Story. No story. Not a story from Hemingway or even award-winning Jhumpa Lahiri. Whatever story comes before this class or any critique group you attend from now on will be judged both for its merit and its flaws, no matter the status of the author. Just because these men and women are published doesn’t mean they’re stories don’t have flaws. Every single story has flaws. The only difference between published stories and your stories is that they have fewer flaws in them or they are able to cover up their flaws up better. Some authors in some books have their language carry the dead weight of a terrible story with flat characters. And yours are no different. Let me say that again. Your stories are no different than theirs. And you are no different than any writer, living or dead.”
Wait. Yes. What? Yes. Yes! I get it. That means that I can do it. I can be a published author. Maybe Plague Journal Panda March IS a great story. Okay, maybe I need to change the title.
It was a revelation and a relief: nothing escapes scrutiny.
It was a revelation because this parasitic idea of ‘If it’s published, it’s perfect’ is implied in every college course and writers group. And it was a relief because I’m a recovering perfectionist (though I’ve yet to perfectly recover), and the idea that a story is never, ever perfect pushes a two-ton weight off my shoulders.
It’s what Harold Bloom called ‘The Anxiety of Influence’: the idea where you are not just writing a novel for you and your contemporaries, but for every single novelist that has ever written a novel. The anxiety that results cripples the writer. You’ll never be able to add anything new or unique if you keep on comparing yourself to them. But now, when I get too anxious, I wonder: was Flaubert a terrible speller? Did Tolstoy’s agent have to tell him to give him more three-dimensional characters? Did Dickens hate revising? Yes, these Greats were great, but in one sense (and maybe the only sense), they treaded (trode?) an the same path that I’m treading now.
When I do this, it puts me in the same realm of the classics, which is blasphemy. It levels the playing field for all other contemporaries, which is petulant. And for the third act of treason, it makes every other writer just another lit nerd, bookworm just like me, which is humbling. It connects me to them with our flaws and foibles but mostly with our love of lit, and it bonds me to them. The anxiety washes away then, and it lifts my spirit up to the realm of true creativity and boundless curiosity. In other words, it turns me back into a kid again, where only book love lives. Finishing a story is about letting go and letting go is about realizing that you will never write out all of the flaws of your story. The idea is to keep going. Every new story will be better than the last and worse than the next.
This revelation also had a down side. It was a terrible blow to my ego. No longer could I rely on some solid piece of evidence for my work. The pursuit for the perfect story (or stories) was obtaining the golden ring of respectability, the wreath of accomplishment, and the scepter of praise. When I realized that these things were only there for me in theory, I grew depressed. But slowly, I learned (the only way I truly learn anything—through writing stories), and I grew more confident and content with the realization that when you eradicate one part the spectrum, you eradicate the other: there’s no such thing as an imperfect story either. No matter how bad a story of mine is, there’s a few flecks of good in it. Art made by flawed humans will be flawed. This is the beauty and the care that is the human form of art.
I shared this slice of my past with you because I’m still struggling with Perfect, still gazing at the spines of great books and sighing that deep sigh of love and shame—the unaccountable sigh of unrequited love. I still struggle with achieving the ring, wreath, and scepter and I still find myself heaving back onto my shoulders that thirteen-ton weight of Perfect. But at least I know I am doing it. And like Krishna Das once said, “Let it go, a million times a minute.” That’s what it’s like. Learning your lesson over and over and over and never quitting.
Somewhere, somehow, there will always be people who love bad art. They are tricked every time by the passe line, the stereotype, the cliche, the contrived character, and the saw-that-coming-a-mile-away ending. Or maybe it’s not that they like it, they just don’t care. I’m not one of those writers because I’m not one of those readers. I’m Captain Serious when it comes to my Work, the Good Work, the Only Work. And my readers are like my heroes—smart, funny, sarcastic, curious, weird. They are Dostoevsky introverts, Woolf dweebs, Dickens dorks, Joycean language geeks, Shakespeare rejects, and literary adjacents. They are people who aren’t afraid to admit that they read by themselves in restaurants and cafeterias (and most times are unaware that this fact is embarrassing to admit at all). They are people that wish that there were more biography profiles on authors on TV done MTV-style. They are the people that love to read because they love to read because they love to read. They choose publishers of canonized books for the feel, the smell, and the translation of a volume and not for its cover. (They also love great covers). They are the people that I write for, because not only do they crave the tough stuff—the languid complex sentences and musical language, the materialization of the ghost behind the narrative, the labyrinthian journey through the inner mind and heart of the characters, the unexamined yet curious and difficult ambiguity of all human connections—but they also need the light stuff—the entertainment, the humor, the surprising yet comforting beginning and the familiar yet inevitable finish.
I love these folks.
They’re not all of my readers,
they’re just my favorites.