November 02, 2009



What novels, if any, will be part of your course?


I'll be using a lot of what I used in last year's Melbourne Master Class:


Paul Lamb

I was going to ask the same question Niall did.

Also, what mix of students can you expect? Absolute novices? Educated dillitantes? Serious writers with some credentials?


I'm told it runs the gamut and to be prepared for anything ...


I think it might be more helpful to have students read bad novels, rather than good ones. That way you can point out where their authors went so very wrong.


It's interesting that you are teaching a course given your generally critical attitude toward MFA programs (as expressed in this blog - not totally hostile, but critical still). Your course isn't part of a MFA, but pretty close. I was wondering how your course is going to be 'different' - or how you intend to correct for the deficiencies you see in the MFA paradigm.


The main difference, EG, is I won't really be getitng into the whole world of literary theory. I'm not training anyone to be a writing teacher, I'm teaching them how to write a first novel - it's a hands-on, practical thing with a clear goal in mind. And, in fact, I do intend to tell 'em on Day One that there are limits to what can and can't be taught about writing.


Mark, you're pulling your punches. Here's what really goes on in MFA programs, at least one's taught by John Cheever:

"In 1973, when he began teaching at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he had T.C. Boyle, Ron Hansen and Allan Gurganus as students. Not only were these talented young writers, but one of them – Gurganus – was extremely handsome (as the photograph included in Bailey’s biography makes abundantly clear) and, as Bailey puts it, ‘quite insouciantly gay’. As Cheever admired Gurganus’s work (and introduced him to Maxwell, who published one of his stories), he presumed that Gurganus would return the compliment by sleeping with him, despite the fact that he was almost 15 years older than Gurganus’s father. Some of his letters to Gurganus were playful, including the one where he asked (in return for the Maxwell introduction) for some favours. ‘All I expect is that you learn to cook, service me sexually from three to seven times a day, never interrupt me, contradict me or reflect in any way on the beauty of my prose, my intellect or my person. You must also play soccer, hockey and football.’ Gurganus let him know as sweetly as he could that while he liked him, he did not want to sleep with him. ‘How dare he refuse me in favour of some dim-witted major in decorative arts,’"


That's the extra you get for the MFA. I doubt Mark will offering quite the same heuristic experience.


Actually, the cooking part doesn't sound so bad, yo ...


Am I correct in assuming we won't have the pleasure of viewing your course lectures remotely? I've enjoyed some of the Literature courses made availalbe by Yale Open Courses and wonder to what extent your winter term class would be made public for non-students.



Excellent link, John. I always wanted to learn more about Milton...


The main difference, EG, is I won't really be getitng into the whole world of literary theory.

Uh... since when do MFA programs teach lit theory? You sure you aren't confusing them with English PhD programs?

The comments to this entry are closed.


  • The Elegant Variation is "Fowler’s (1926, 1965) term for the inept writer’s overstrained efforts at freshness or vividness of expression. Prose guilty of elegant variation calls attention to itself and doesn’t permit its ideas to seem naturally clear. It typically seeks fancy new words for familiar things, and it scrambles for synonyms in order to avoid at all costs repeating a word, even though repetition might be the natural, normal thing to do: The audience had a certain bovine placidity, instead of The audience was as placid as cows. Elegant variation is often the rock, and a stereotype, a cliché, or a tired metaphor the hard place between which inexperienced or foolish writers come to grief. The familiar middle ground in treating these homely topics is almost always the safest. In untrained or unrestrained hands, a thesaurus can be dangerous."


  • The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald


    Penelope Fitzgerald's second novel is the tale of Florence Green, a widow who seeks, in the late 1950s, to bring a bookstore to an isolated British town, encountering all manner of obstacles, including incompetent builders, vindictive gentry, small minded bankers, an irritable poltergeist, but, above all, a town that might not, in fact, want a bookshop. Fitzgerald's prose is spare but evocative – there's no wasted effort and her work reminds one of Hemingway's dictum that every word should fight for its right to be on the page. Florence is an engaging creation, stubbornly committed to her plan even as uncertainty regarding the wisdom of the enterprise gnaws at her. But The Bookshop concerns itself, finally, with the astonishing vindictiveness of which provincials are capable, and, as so much English fiction must, it grapples with the inevitabilities of class. It's a dense marvel at 123 pages, a book you won't want to – or be able to – rush through.
  • The Rider by Tim Krabbe


    Tim Krabbé's superb 1978 memoir-cum-novel is the single best book we've read about cycling, a book that will come closer to bringing you inside a grueling road race than anything else out there. A kilometer-by-kilometer look at just what is required to endure some of the most grueling terrain in the world, Krabbé explains the tactics, the choices and – above all – the grinding, endless, excruciating pain that every cyclist faces and makes it heart-pounding rather than expository or tedious. No writer has better captured both the agony and the determination to ride through the agony. He's an elegant stylist (ably served by Sam Garrett's fine translation) and The Rider manages to be that rarest hybrid – an authentic, accurate book about cycling that's a pleasure to read. "Non-racers," he writes. "The emptiness of those lives shocks me."