I’ll confess a little apprehension when I was told I couldn’t replace my final English Composition requirement for my degree with Technical Writing. English Composition 3 was described as teaching students literary criticism. Said the book reviewer…
I’ve always had a problem with literary criticism. I’ve always associated it with people like Harold Bloom pompously telling me what I can or can’t read. More annoying, LA Times critic Richard Schickel derided “mere reviewers” since they could not possibly be writing “even unto the ages.”
Yes, I have a serious problem with intellectual fart-sniffing. So to find out that I was going to have to learn their trade secrets filled me with…
I won’t say dread. I will say squick. Yes. Let us say squick and leave it at that.
So I plunged ahead. Hey, guess what. You can learn literary criticism and not have to slog through yet another creative writing grad’s annoying tale about a creative writing professor lusting over one of his nubile young students. I also discovered a few things about myself as a writer and reviewer.
For starters, I have never been an active reader. I basically read and react. That works fine. I review books, and the shorter ones require more of a knee-jerk response than a deep, critical analysis of a given work. Anyway, that’s hard to do with, say, Janet Evanovich anyway. She’s not writing to be compared to Steinbeck, and no one’s reading her for that as it is.
But it spills over into writing, too. When you’re composing a long work, does it not make sense to be aware of how you are using the different parts of a novel or a short story? Are there more subtle ways to get your vision of a story across? Sure, there are authors who will say, “But we’re just entertainers. Stop trying to be anything different.”
To some extent that’s true, but at the same time, shouldn’t a writer be better?
As it is, I’ve taken to this class with a bit of gusto. I dread the section on poetry as it’s never been my strong suit. I wrote a couple of poems when I was dating Nita. In fact, she is the first woman to whom I’ve written poetry. However, I’m not going to expose you to that. I did get some positive feedback on “A Very Tom Waits Christmas” from Gerald So, who edits the crime poetry journal The Lineup. But “Waits Christmas” is a bit of a novelty verse, based on listening to “I Pulled on Trouble’s Braids” during the holiday season one year. It just sort of wrote itself.
Fortunately, I’m not being asked to write poetry, but I have been given the opportunity to write a short story. One of our essay assignments is offers the option of rewriting Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” from a minor character’s point-of-view. It’s been about 28 years since I read that poem. I do remember the main character was a bit self-absorbed and wondered whether poor Fortunado was aware of the “thousand injuries” he’d apparently done to the vengeful schmuck. Well, now I get a chance to speculate on that. And the nice thing is I can turn around and sell the story, too. “Cask” is in public domain, and this rewrite is a serious critique of Poe’s work, so why not? The question is who would buy it. Who’d buy a rewrite of a 164-year-old story? We’ll find out.
What this class is not, thankfully, is a professor standing in front of a room full of hopeful writers telling them to eschew plot and reject genre and while we’re at it, just throw out everything that isn’t post-modern, cynical, or full of hard-to-read prose that only other creative writing students get. Most of my classmates are students fulfilling a credit, as am I, actually. We’re not training to be writers.
Since I am one, however, it’s definitely a good thing to learn what it is I’m actually writing.