Margaret Atwood and the Rules of Writing (February 19, 1997)

I haven’t read a novel for three or four years. It came to a point where I’d get halfway through a book, see the formula at work, and lost interest. What happened is that I’d encountered a bunch of lousy novels. There are plenty of them out there.

There was a time when I could read almost anything, even supermarket trash novels with embossed covers, knowing it was at least a little better than watching television. During a really slow period I even read Merv Griffin’s autobiography, just because it was there. There’s a funny story in it about how he offended an Italian booking agent by sining a song called “Never Let A Day Go By.” Detective stories. Or vampire stuff. There was a pretty good variation on the Dracula theme, with a modern twist, called “Children of the Night.” The vampires had an extra organ containing a substance that could cure AIDS. Page after page was filled with blood-biology words like “lymphocytes” nad “leukocytes.” But th story’s hope of a miracle cure is never realized because the big chase has to begin. At least the formla didn’t kick in on this one until aobut two-thrids of the way through, and I made it all the way to the end only to be appalled at the made-for-the-movies finale, the ultra-clichéd shot of a helicopter rising into sight over the castle wall. Oh, well.

Recently I saw the movie, “The Handmaid’s Tale,” from a novel by the Canadian writer Margaret Atwood. A good story; intelligent, insightful and a bit acerbic. Next thing you know, Paula’s comin back from the library with Margaret Atwood books, so I pick one up. It’s called “Cat’s Eye.” The title refers to a kid’s marble, and the books is essentially “about” the strange undercurrents in childhood relationships, as well as adult ones. I’d call it wonderful writing.

And I’m noticing while reading this that Margaret Atwood’s writing wouldn’t get a passing grade in a high school English class. Incomplete sentences. Improper case usage of personal pronouns… (It was her, I tell you. She did it.) Come to think of it, most of the writers I like write (or wrote) incorrectly. Henry Miller, Bukowski, Hunter Thompson… There’s a writer called Richard Hell, from New York. I only saw an excerpt somewhere between Bukowski and Margaret Atwood.

So maybe this is a stupid question, but if, generally speaking, all the “great” modern writers or should I say the interesting writers — the ones who really have something worthwhile to say about the human condition or anything else that “really matters” — if these writers “break th rules” or better yet just ignore them, then why does the education establishment continue to teach the rules? Or is it, as I suspect, that the goal of the education establishment is to deliberately foster mediocrity, not to stimulate creative thinking but to condition young minds for the “professional,” businss/government world or, failing that, an academic career. After all, more professors will be needed…

I went to a university writing class once, a ten-week “fiction manuscript workshop” given by a published novelist of some renown here in the Seattle area. It was a brutal affair; we passed copies of our stories to everyone else, adn then we all proceeded to rip each other apart. That part I enjoyed, but this class, like all classes, had rules. There was even a diagram on the blackboard of how a story is supposed to be constructed. Six or seven of the 18 people in the class dropped out, couldn’t take it. Well, they couldn’t write, either…

I was reminded of a line from one of my favorite books, “Anybody Can Do Anything” by Betty McDonald. Betty goes to night school, a writing class, and she’s about the only one in there who can write. The instructor confides to her that “trying to teach people with nothing to say how to write it down can be a tedious business.”

One Response to "Margaret Atwood and the Rules of Writing (February 19, 1997)"

  1. George Dorner   February 16, 2020 at 10:39 am

    The great hidden secret of the recent rash of rotten novels is the Master of Fine Arts writing programs. These programs consist of poets teaching prose writers to write fiction. Given the poets’ inexperience with such novelistic devices as foreshadowing, multiple timelines, etc, the result is prose students unaware of the tools of their craft. The result is these pathetic bores despised by Mr. Costello…and many others.

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