Posted in Reading, Writing

The Sentences of Courtroom Drama. . .

. . . and Jean Stafford, or How Writing about Defending Jacob (the July Coffee Talk Book Club selection) isn’t Really Writing about Defending Jacob 

Since I don’t read legal thrillers, I can’t compare William Landay’s prose with John Grisham’s or Scott Turow’s. But I appreciate Defending Jacob for leading me to contemplate the differences between Landay’s sentences and the ones crafted by Jean Stafford, whose Selected Stories I’m reading now.

In Chapter 3 of Defending Jacob,  the narrator, Andy Barber, catalogs the contents of his son’s room with these lines:

Defending Jacob (2012)
Defending Jacob (2012)

“Jacob’s room was cluttered with huge oafish sneakers, a MacBook covered with stickers, an iPod, schoolbooks, paperback novels, shoe boxes filled with old baseball cards and comic books. In the corner, an Xbox was hooked up to an old TV. The Xbox disks and their cases were piled nearby, mostly combat role-play games. There was dirty laundry, of course, but also two stacks of clean laundry neatly folded and delivered by Laurie, which Jacob had declined to put away in his bureau because it was easier to pluck clean clothes right from the piles. On top of a low bookcase was a group of trophies Jacob had won when he was a kid playing youth soccer. He had not been much of an athlete, but back then every kid got a trophy, and in the years since he had simply never moved them” (23).

Back then every kid got a trophy? Back then? (Unlike now?)

I won’t dwell on the sentence about the trophy; it’s less troublesome than the string of missed opportunities that precede it, where we don’t see anything unexpected: “There was dirty laundry, of course. . . .” And the expected isn’t presented to us in surprising ways:

“. . .but also two stacks of clean laundry neatly folded and delivered by Laurie, which Jacob had declined to put away in his bureau because it was easier to pluck clean clothes right from the piles.”

As a counterpoint, consider this passage from Jean Stafford’s short story “Bad Characters,” which catalogs the contents of a dresser drawer:

“I loved the smell of the lavender she kept in gauze bags among her chamois gloves and linen handkerchiefs and filmy scarves; there was a pink fascinator knitted of something as fine as a spider’s thread, and it made me go quite soft—I wasn’t soft as a rule, I was as hard as nails and I gave my mother a rough time—to think of her wearing it around her head as she waltzed on the ice in the bygone days. We examined stockings, nightgowns, camisoles, strings of beads, and mosaic pins, keepsake buttons from dresses worn on memorial occasions, tortoiseshell combs, and a transformation made from Aunt Joey’s hair when she had racily had it bobbed. Lottie admired particularly a blue cloisonné perfume flask with ferns and peacocks on it. ‘Hey,’ she said, ‘this sure is cute. I like thing-daddies like this here.’ But very abruptly she got bored and said, ‘Let’s talk instead. In the front room’” (104).

Selected Stories of Jean Stafford (1966)
Selected Stories of Jean Stafford (1966)

Stafford’s deft prose conveys far more than Landay’s. His narrator’s inspection of Jacob’s room yields nothing of the father’s character and scarcely more of the son’s. Essentially, he’s a fourteen-year-old from central casting.

In contrast, the passage from “Bad Characters” reveals details about the narrator, her Aunt, and Lottie. The narrator “love[s] the smell of lavender”; she’s a romantic who can also be “hard as nails” and gives her “mother a rough time.” Her Aunt  “racily” had her hair bobbed. (Perhaps she was racier than the narrator’s mother, who wore the transformation fashioned from Joey’s hair.) And Lottie admires “thing-daddies,” like the “blue cloisonné perfume flask,” but she gets bored “very abruptly.”

From the list, we know less of the mother than we know of her sister, her daughter, and her daughter’s partner in crime. But the list  doesn’t need to reveal the mother’s character because it serves another purpose. That’s not the case with Landay’s list. His only substitutes for character; Stafford’s constructs a scaffold for building it.

Landay, William. Defending Jacob. 2012. New York: Dell, 2013.

Stafford, Jean. Selected Stories of Jean Stafford. New York: Signet, 1966.


Posted in Reading, Teaching, Writing

“Against the Workshop”

Against the Workshop (2011)
Against the Workshop (2011)

What’s wrong with American letters? Ask Anis Shivani, and he’ll tell you in no uncertain terms: “Mediocre new writers, whose only talent seems to be to have understood the rules of the marketing game, are lauded week after week as brilliant”  while “[o]ld favorites mired in repetitive self-imitation are still offered as awesome masters” (15).  Variations on those lines from his  essay “Why is American Fiction in its Current Dismal State?,” appear throughout his book Against the Workshop, which brings together a decade of his essays and reviews.

Shivani offers convincing arguments, but some of his choices threaten his credibility. He chastens journals for “engag[ing] only in the mutual flattery business” (16) while his review of Jay Parini’s poetry and Parini’s introduction to the book present evidence of the same. Shivani calls Parini’s poetry “fiery hot to the touch, the apparent simplicity a form of high art” (134). Parini reciprocates–because Shivani’s pretty hot, too, it seems–writing of him as “one of the sanest voices in criticism today” a “keen vision” and “cruel wit” (xiv).

For Shivani, Billy Collins‘ poems are “single-mindedly predictable imaginative exercises” (61). But Shivani tends toward formula too, castigating in the same mode, repeatedly pinning the failings of fiction and poetry (in Best New American Voices, Best American Poetry, et al.) on an undemocratic system of graduate Creative Writing Programs rife with problems.

Shivani closes his book with an essay that likens Writing  Programs to medieval guilds.  It’s true; they have their masters, journeymen, and apprentices, but so do graduate programs in all other disciplines. The source of the problem isn’t Creative Writing, it’s the university credentialing system, itself. And that system now faces a challenge from MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). I wish that Anis Shivani would consider teaching one, or try working within the current system to effect change.

Shivani, Anis. Against the Workshop: Provocations, Polemics, Controversies. Huntsville: Texas Review, 2011.