Seth Fischer of The Rumpus yesterday re-brought to my attention a Tim O’Brien piece from the latest Atlantic Fiction Issue, “Telling Tails,” in which O’Brien laments “The problem with unsuccessful stories is usually simple: they are boring, a consequence of the failure of imagination. To vividly imagine and to vividly render extraordinary human events, or sequences of events, is the hard-lifting, heavy-duty, day-by-day, unending labor of a fiction writer.”
He mentions his children and their affinity for tails. (Convenient both in that “tails,” as in what animals have, is the same word as “tales,” or stories, the state of which O’Brien wishes to criticize, as well as the fact that humans regard tails, since we lack them, as a symbol of the less-than-real.) He heralds the importance of the imagination: the beauty of simply pretending, creatively. And he worries, sweetly, about The Fall of his boys.
Writing workshops, writes O’Brien, are killing writing’s sense of wonderment.
O’Brien is predisposed to magical realism and the fantastic, but he is sure to mention that imaginative fiction does not need to be such. There are many other things it needs to be, though, including not boring (many of which O’Brien himself incorporates brilliantly into his own “make-believe” work, which by the way I’m a huge fan of). While I followed O’Brien somewhat enthusiastically through his introductory anecdote and the first few paragraphs of the piece, when he begins examining what he saw as examples of bad fiction (too much unnecessary detail) and good fiction (un-generic, unpredictable), I began to feel as if I myself were sitting in on my own Introduction to Fiction Writing, being reminded not to overuse adjectives and not to simply write only of the color of a character’s eyes and hair when trying to bring them to life.
How much I’d love to believe that the only problem with stories today is that MFA programs are suffocating the Lewis Carrolls or A.A. Milnes out there. But I think there is a lot that kills that sense of wonderment, most simply that a lot of people want to write “these days.” (I don’t actually know if there are more or less writers now than other days, but it’s certainly a lot either way.) Figuring out how to get past this is a necessary professional hurdle.
While I don’t wish to defend writing workshops–I’ve harbored misgivings myself–and I think O’Brien has a point to say that such programs’ “discussion[s] seems to revolve almost exclusively around issues of verisimilitude,” aside from imagination, though, what about form, content, poignancy, literary merit, or the simple rhythm of the words? All of these factors can be both included or excluded from the realm of “imagination.” Yes, imagination is the most important thing, and is ultimately what bad fiction surely lacks. And maybe workshops are culprits. In the end, O’Brien’s argument is lopsided and, fittingly, distractingly imaginative.
Perhaps the piece has done the trick, though, because according to Rumpus’ Seth Fischer, he’s “off to go try to write a story about vigilante penguins whose flippers have turned into nuclear artillery guns because they’ve been drinking from radioactive icicles.” Yes!, I say. Is this what O’Brien’s getting at when he writes of imagination? Yes and no, no and yes. But go do it, and for Christ’s sake don’t worry so much about verisimilitude.