The Donald Maass/Wayne Booth Showdown

A few weeks ago, a book called Writing 21st Century Fiction showed up in my mailbox. This is one of the key benefits of editing The Los Angeles Review–publishers just mail you things. I’m talking about books just showing up in envelopes, no note appended, no explanation given. We don’t really review craft manuals at the journal, but because I’d just “finished” one novel project and have had the idea for another, very different novel knocking around in the back of my mind, I decided to take it out for a spin.

Now, the author, Donald Maass, knows what he’s doing. He’s been wildly successful as an agent, and his books on the craft of writing have done very well indeed. Yet I have to say that I found this book somewhat perplexing. In some ways, I felt it was a cookbook of sorts, with advice that seemed too good to be true. For example: create a tic for your protagonist, then add it to the plot six times. Maass claims this will suddenly become a compelling personality quirk. He also suggests that writers make characters “more like the real you.” (I like to imagine that Douglass Coupland has taken note, and sits gnawing his fingernails and wondering where he could possibly go from here.)

These suggestions could go some way toward perking up a story that needs little verve, but I can also see them suffocating a novel. One recurrent theme 21st Century Fiction that I found particularly troubling is the admonition to make any novel more and more personal: plumbing personal pain, envisioning oneself as a major character, injecting the writer’s own daily thoughts into the characters’ minds, etc. Why are we so eager for fiction to be personal, and for novelists to reveal themselves–as individuals–on the page?

At some point, I shelved 21st Century Fiction (sorry, Mr. Maass!) pulled out a grad-school volume, The Theory of the Novel, and reread Wayne Booth’s work on point of view. Booth describes in some detail the concept of “aesthetic distance,” which I think is a concept altogether missing from Maass’s advice. Of the implied author, Booth says, “any successful novel(its) makes us believe in an ‘author’ who amounts to a kind of ‘second self.’ This second self is usually a highly refined and selected version, wiser, more sensitive, more perceptive than any real man could be.” Booth goes on to say that, to the reader, the successful second self and the author may be nearly indistinguishable, though entirely separate morally, aesthetically, and personally.

So, who’s right? Maass, in 2013, who wants us all write what I am interpreting as thinly veiled versions of ourselves? Or Booth, in 1961, who looks at the author as processing story through a lens he’s only tricking the reader into thinking is a reflection of the author’s true self? Perhaps more interestingly, why are contemporary folks like Maass suggesting that we grow ever more personal when the entire genre of memoir–the truly personal–seems to undergo a daily beating in American criticism?

I get that Booth isn’t trendy reading today. I get that literature keeps pushing into the self-publishing, all-are-able, everyone-can-write-a-novel territory. And I agree, in part, that there’s something to be said for demystifying the artistic process for those with stories to tell. But I tend to believe that our writing can’t help but reflect our own obsessions when we’re writing honestly. We wouldn’t spend years of our lives on work that didn’t reflect what interests us the most deeply. Writing openly about those obsessions, which are often our darknesses, requires enormous bravery that should be appreciated when executed well. But should we as fiction writers (or poets, for that matter! Writing falsehoods in verse is so often one of our tasks. There are plenty of poems in Burn This House that are true to my lived experience, yet there are also many that aren’t) set out to leave our lives on the page? Because it seems like an easy way to write a compelling story? I like to think that there’s more to art than personality or individual experience. I think we can be a part of a larger conversation without constantly harping on our own lives. We can discuss what matters to us without claiming to own what matters.

I like to think that we don’t write to say who we, as individuals, are. We write to work out who we, as a world, might be.

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2 thoughts on “The Donald Maass/Wayne Booth Showdown

  1. Great post. With all due respect to Mr. Maass, I think that after writing dozens of volumes and articles on craft, he’s concerned more with selling books than writing good ones. He has to find something he hasn’t said before to make his words marketable.

    The fact that Booth’s book still resonates fifty years after it was written says quite a lot, mostly that good literary theory, like basic human emotion, doesn’t change with every passing trend. It seems as though Booth wrote for the artist, while Maass writes for the wannabe writer.

    Just thinking aloud (so to speak) here: Comparing a few old and new books on craft might make an interesting omnibus?

  2. Interesting that you mention “The Theory of the Novel.” I just picked up a copy (at Powell’s no less, an odd confluence with your link) after talking about the book with Wayne at the last residency.

    As for the new book from Donald Maass, I must first acknowledge that I haven’t read it, though I admit I’m curious. From what you say about it, I suspect that the manuscripts that show up on his desk have been lacking in verisimilitude. Thus, he encourages more personal involvement from writers to get them to express some real emotion.

    Of course, if that’s his goal, then it would backfire if he ends up getting a bunch of “fiction” that’s thinly veiled memoir.

    That six-times-tic thing, though, just sounds weird.

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