Did you read the Buzzfeed piece that came out last month, about writing workshops and Pride and Prejudice, by Shannon Reed? “If Jane Austen Got Feedback From Some Guy In A Writing Workshop.”
You should. It’s very funny.
I don’t usually read chick lit, but I didn’t hate reading this draft of your novel, which you’re calling Pride and Prejudice. I really liked the part where Elizabeth and her aunt and uncle went on a road trip, which reminded me of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (also about a road trip — check it out!).
I won’t lie. I like to think I’m not as sexist and priggish as this guy. Still, parts of Reed’s piece made me cringe in self-recognition.
In a writing workshop, it’s easy (easy at least for me) to develop the exact tone (superior, amused, hurried) that Reed satirises here. You’re drafting your response in a hurry, you feel like you grasp profoundly what the writer should have done differently, you have a clever theory about story-making that you want to recount… If only you just say it clearly, you think, your classmate will get it and the story will be so improved.
But you’re scribbling comments fast, just putting down ideas as they come.
So, a big question I have is “Why?” Why does Elizabeth do the things she does? Why does Mr. Darcy do the things he does? Why does Mrs. Bennet do the things she does? Have you read Hamlet?
Of course, Reed’s choice of Pride and Prejudice is particularly brilliant (as the subject of this dude’s ill-advised advice), because Pride and Prejudice is pretty much the perfect story. It can seemingly be translated into any other narrative medium — it can be re-told and re-shaped endlessly. Turn the book into a film or a comic book? Make Mr. Darcy a vampire? It still works.
Two hundred years ago, people in England did not have running water, or telephones, or passenger trains. Darwin and his theory of evolution was still fifty years in the future. Life in Austen’s time, in other words, was almost unimaginably different to our own. And yet, 200 years after Austen created him, Mr. Darcy is still sexy! We appear to respond to the novel’s characters exactly as Austen intended her own readers to. Pride and Prejudice is an awe-inspiring achievement.
The tragedy of Reed’s imaginary workshop guy is that he can’t see any of this. He is busy talking about motifs and motivations when he should be kneeling in awe. He has his own capacity and experience of writing fiction, and he assumes that everyone else shares it: he can’t imagine that he has encountered an infinitely more advanced model of writing. So he subjects it to his own limited take.
This is a general problem in teaching. One of the biggest difficulties in teaching writing is that, a lot of the time, students can’t see quality. Show them something objectively good, and often they remain unimpressed: “It just jumps all over the place.”
I’ve been lucky to teach undergraduates so brilliant that when I’ve showed a little of their work to published, MFA-ed writer friends, the table goes silent, my friend staring at the page in uneasy admiration; yet when that same story goes to workshop, some of the student’s fellow undergrads will launch irritated, blistering attacks on it, accusing the writer of the most basic, glaring errors.
It’s a peculiar thing.
The programmer and venture capitalist, Paul Graham, once talked about this same problem, using an imaginary programming language, “Blub,” as his example.
Graham starts from the premise that different programming languages have radically different capabilities.
Some are relatively close to actual machine code, and so, if you want to do anything truly complex with them, the work will be laborious and exhausting, while others (more abstract languages) can do more and do it quicker. Those “higher” languages can achieve more for the programmer who knows how to use them. Graham asserts (or asserted at the time of writing) that one language, Lisp, is the most powerful language of them all.
Graham then asks: if Lisp is indeed the most powerful language, why isn’t everyone using it? Surely all programmers would naturally specialise in the “best” language currently available, given that their careers depended on it? Not so. And it’s not simply the result of institutional pressures. If you came to work for an organisation where everyone else was writing in C++, it would certainly make sense that you would also choose to write in C++. Graham argues, however, that even when those pressures are absent, programmers will still not choose to learn and use more powerful languages. They don’t even see why they should.
The “blub paradox,” says Graham, is that while programmers can perceive the limitations in languages less powerful than the ones they know, they can’t even imagine the good qualities of a more powerful language.
Imagine, Graham proposes, a programmer who knows how to write Blub.
Blub falls right in the middle of the abstractness continuum. It is not the most powerful language, but it is more powerful than Cobol or machine language.
And in fact, our hypothetical Blub programmer wouldn’t use either of them. Of course he wouldn’t program in machine language. That’s what compilers are for. And as for Cobol, he doesn’t know how anyone can get anything done with it. It doesn’t even have x (Blub feature of your choice).
As long as our hypothetical Blub programmer is looking down the power continuum, he knows he’s looking down. Languages less powerful than Blub are obviously less powerful, because they’re missing some feature he’s used to. But when our hypothetical Blub programmer looks in the other direction, up the power continuum, he doesn’t realize he’s looking up. What he sees are merely weird languages. He probably considers them about equivalent in power to Blub, but with all this other hairy stuff thrown in as well. Blub is good enough for him, because he thinks in Blub.
Reed’s “some guy” in the writing workshop is like Graham’s Blub programmer. When that dude looks at Austen’s work, beholding a model of fiction far more advanced than his own, he doesn’t realise what he’s seeing. Not only is he an insecure sexist, and bothered by absurd, irrelevant issues, he simply drifts over what is so powerful and effective in Pride and Prejudice. He assumes Austen’s work must operate by the kind of rules he thinks he understands. He doesn’t see that the novel was produced by a fiction-writing language called “Austen,” one that can do far more than his own paltry craft.
Because he thinks in Blub.
(The situation in fiction is obviously more tricky than Graham’s example. There is no “code” version of Austen’s novel for us to look at in the way that there is the Lisp version of the shopping websites that Graham was building. We all read the same printed pages. But it does seem that reading a book as a reader and reading it as a writer are comparable to reading it for the outward experience and reading it as an attempt — however subconsciously — to peel back its layers, see how it works. We can discover something about “Austen” by examining the novel piece by piece, noticing how key scenes are designed, savouring the ways the narration operates, making mental notes on the prose style. Reading as a writer, in other words, can make us worse readers. We sometimes apply our own intellectual standards to a novel and succeed only in breaking it.)
This is one reason why true classroom learning, moments of intellectual breakthrough, feel less like the result of slow attendance and note-taking, and more like a sudden epiphany. Probably you had heard the teacher’s words many times before. Probably the idea itself was nothing new. But the breakthrough comes when you suddenly see the conception of writing that your teacher was trying to explain. You understand that there is a more advanced way of looking at the world than Blub.
And then you can’t explain what you just realised to your friends.
As a teacher and student of writing, this theory makes me nervous, for two reasons. Firstly: there is no reason that one great, famous writer is using the same “writing technology” as any other. If we think of Pride and Prejudice as a novel created by a fiction writing language called “Austen,” then it’s likely that only Austen knew that language, and that she developed it privately, more or less in secret, over years of practice, reading, and conversation. There are superficial aspects of “Austen” that anyone can discover and adopt. There is surely a fair bit of “Austen” in all those modern-day novels that recast Darcy as a vampire or a samurai lord.
But the real core of the writing technology called “Austen” requires immense work to uncover. And uncovering it does not imply that one has any more grasp of a different fiction writing technology, one such as “Toni Morrison” or “Don Delillo.”
Secondly, this suggests that one cannot attempt, even if one knew the language oneself, to teach “Austen” to students directly. Jane Austen, in fact, might be a terrible teacher of “Austen,” because she might not be able to imagine being as bad as writing it as her students were. She would never think to teach all the necessary steps, because she had forgotten learning them; all her best pronouncements might seem either obvious or mysterious.
If the average student is writing a prose version of “Blub,” then much of what it means to be a good writing teacher is one’s ability to teach one’s own version of “Blub +” — a writing language that is better than what they are writing, but not by too much. Blub + is like Blub, but more elegant, more efficient. It helps students avoid the worst errors of Blub. It is close to Blub, however, because it requires relatively few steps to make the transition.
Now, I love teaching writing of all kinds, levels, and genres. I would probably want to teach writing even if I wasn’t being paid to teach it.
But I still wonder if that too much time in the classroom leads one to forget the difference between “literature” and “Blub +”. One gets so used to speaking about “Blub +” that one starts to think it can be used to write a novel like Pride and Prejudice.