Sunday, April 30, 2017

Whose writing tools should we use?

The New York Times Book Review has an interesting opinion piece by Viet Thanh Nguyen, "Your Writing Tools Aren't Mine." It begins by pointing out that American literature is being read around the world and that the American way of teaching writing is also spreading. "The writing workshop, with all its unexamined assumptions, has spread to Britain and Hong Kong, a model of pedagogy that is also an object lesson in how power propagates and conceals itself."

Nguyen touches on his own experience as a refugee from war, from an Asian country in a workshop that deliberately or otherwise, "produces a particular kind of writing." He says that workshops typically focus on "strategies of the writing 'art' that develop character, setting, time, description, theme, voice and, to a lesser extent, plot."

They generally do not have anything to say about politics, history, theory, philosophy, or ideology. Writing teachers avoid these subjects for fiction, not because they put off readers or because the teachers are unqualified to teach them, but because they threaten the workshop's origins.

As an institution, Nguyen writes, "the workshop reproduces its ideology, which pretends that 'Show, don't tell' is universal when it is, in fact the expression of a particular population, the white majority, typically at least middle-class and often, but not exclusively, male."

It's an interesting argument. (And it echoes themes in Minae Mizumura's The Fall of Language in the Age of English, which I discussed recently.) If nothing else, the piece is sending me to read Nguyen's novel The Sympathizer, which won a 2016 Pulitzer Prize and a ton of other awards. I am curious to see how his own fiction reflects his ideas. In any case, his fiction provokes strong feelings among readers as few minutes skimming through the 1,478 Amazon reviews suggests:

" . . . simply superb. Written with an unflinching eye and great humor . . ."

" . . . boring. Nothing actually happened, there was no plot . . ."

" . . . a fabulous book that brought so many memories of my two Viet Nam tours . . ."

" . . . overrated, predictable, no plot twist at all . . ."

" . . . a very serious story, but with wonderful humor interlaced with the tales of political intrigue."

" . . . a potentially interesting theme and plot ruined by the narrator's flippant attitude to everything . . ."

But you get the idea. And I wonder how far Nguyen is willing to go. 

Should writers not develop character, describe a scene, set a time, have a theme (in my experience, a work has a theme whether you want one or not), tell not show? Which is not to denigrate or dismiss politics, history, theory, philosophy, and ideology. It seems to me that the more tools a writer can employ effectively, the more engaging, the richer a work is likely to be. 

I'd be interested in hear other opinions. 

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