On satisfying the reader’s heart

by look i have opinions

“By the time I was accepted at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the furthest I’d ventured into American literature was the modernism of Sherwood Anderson, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald. For the first time, I read short fiction writers known for their ‘spare’ prose style, like Raymond Carver, whose work my classmates praised as ‘quiet’ and ‘restrained.’ Now, emotion (and the rare sex scene) was conveyed delicately through mood and atmosphere. I felt a kind of reader’s depression. Where was the meaning? How far did I have to dig under the surface of the prose? It felt as if there was a hole in my reader’s heart. Not that I would have ever mentioned the ‘heart’ in workshop, the most sentimental of symbols.

“After a semester of workshops where we praised writers who wrote in ‘trim’ prose, I was converted to [a] more refined literary camp, where subtlety trumped all, even emotion. The more subdued my own writing style became the more my classmates appreciated it in workshop. This was especially true of the male writers, who began to imply, through playful teasing, that I wrote ‘stories about women for women,’ and that I was lucky, because, ‘maybe someday Oprah will pick you for her book club.’ […]

“With a misdirected motivation that thrives with youth, fueled by my fear of rejection, I committed myself to toning down the emotion in my writing. […] I wrote a few sex scenes—spare in style and violent in content—and the ‘risks’ I took in writing about sex were applauded in class.

“Looking back now, re-reading those scenes, I see they are just shadows of real characters feeling vague emotion. Instead a gulf separates the reader from the character’s experience. I confess that I felt very little when I wrote those scenes; I was merely copying the writers I thought I was supposed to admire. I was removed from the characters even when writing semi-autobiographically.”

—Julia Fierro in an essay

I feel the need to quote so much of this piece because it so exactly conveys my feeling about “spare, polished” literary fiction—“a kind of reader’s depression.” I think a lot of writers choose that style not only because it’s conventional, but also as a way of cushioning their egos. If you don’t love your work, it can’t hurt you, but the reader isn’t going to love it or be hurt by it either.

Maybe it would be more effective for teachers to insist on strong emotion, even melodrama and sentimentality, at least early in the writing process. Cram all your feelings into your first draft! Tears, thrills, fury, excessive exclamation points! Then gradually tone it down. Listen for false notes and eliminate them. Build a foundation beneath your castle in the air. I don’t know.

Edited to add: Don’t music teachers tell beginning students to play loud? The theory is that you know how to play loud, you’ll have no trouble playing soft. That’s the approach I’m talking about here.