How do you judge fiction?

Novelist and short story prizejudge Benjamin Markovits thinks we can…

“Short stories are the meat and drink of the workshop. You can discuss them in class, the whole and the parts, plot arcs and sentences, in under an hour. If they didn’t exist, universities would have had to invent them. You can expect students to write several in the course of a term; you can give them feedback and consultations, help them work through several drafts. The whole process is designed to produce a constantly improvable piece of writing, which you then assess at the end of the year. You give it a grade.”

“People often ask me: how do you mark creative work? I’ve got a standard line in response. Well, it’s not that different from judging an English essay. There are objective criticisms you can make, you can point stuff out, but how you decide to rate or value the things done well, how much you penalise the things done less well—it’s a semi-random choice. It’s also hard to distinguish from the exercise of deep prejudice.

“You can use a softer word than prejudice, like bias, or even turn it into a term of praise—you can call it taste. Much of what writers do, on the page, is to apply taste to their imaginations. I’ve always been suspicious of novelists who say you can’t teach writing, that the best you can do is pass on the name of your agent to talented students. It makes me think, either they don’t know what they’re doing or they’re not being honest about what they know. Maybe for trade secret reasons.

“…part of the point of studying books (how to read them, or write them) is to form taste, to make you aware of it, to think about how it represents you.

“One of the things that teaching (and writing) has made clear to me is that I’m basically a realist. The way things actually happen seems more interesting to me than the way we can imagine them: subtler, more intricate and revealing. I think of reality (as boring and detailed as we know it to be) as a kind of tuning fork, which you tap before sitting down to work—that’s the note you want to strike, as close as you can get to it.”

This judge/critic’s central conceit:

“One of the things I look for in any work of fiction, whether I’m teaching or judging or writing, is the number of “reads” or “progressions” a story suggests. These are American football terms. A quarterback is the guy who controls the action, often by throwing the ball to one of his “receivers.” To an untrained eye, a football “play” looks like 22 grown men running round like chickens, creating chaos. But in fact everybody is working through a series of complicated instructions, which sometimes involve responding and adapting to what other players, on their own or the other team, are doing. So the quarterback has to be able to see patterns in this chaos, and make decisions based on what he sees in “real time”—in a few split seconds.

“A “progression” means looking fromone receiver, to another, to another, to assess whether each is “open”—a playusually involves a decision tree of preferred options. If you can’t pass toBryant, then Williams. If not Williams, then Gronkowski. A “read” means workingthrough a similar kind of hierarchy for the defensive cues. Reads andprogressions affect each other. A college quarterback might work through acouple at a time; but a professional quarterback can make decisions based onsix or seven or eight different things happening at once. That’s why a lot ofgreat college QBs end up failing in the professional league. They can’t adjustto the increased complexity—they can’t process reality quickly enough.

“You can apply this idea to a good story. How many “progressions” is a writer working through in a scene? How many different things are going on at once? Call them “plots,” if you like. A good writer in control of her material can effortlessly suggest five or six or seven different kinds of events unfolding at the same time. Student work rarely involves more than one or two.”

The illustration:

“In “Post and Beam,” one of my favourite Alice Munro stories, Lorna, a young mother, finds her friendship with her husband’s former student, a man named Lionel, starting to unsettle her. When her older cousin visits from the country, Lorna feels torn, caught between the innocence of her rural childhood and the kind of middle-class ambition that motherhood has both frustrated and introduced her to.

“Meanwhile, the cousin herself is goingthrough a transformation, from needy spinster into a capable and attractivemiddle-aged woman. When the student meets the cousin, they begin to flirt. Whatall this really brings home to Lorna is just how unhappy she is in hermarriage. She feels that something must change and resigns herself at the sametime to accepting her life as it is. Cousin, student, husband, wife,children—all of them are involved in their own stories, and the stories bounceoff each other and push in new directions. It’s 20-odd pages long. This kind of complexity is measurable.It’s not really just a matter of opinion.”

Another illustration:

“Something else I look for is the number of stages each progression goes through—the little incidents that move it along. In Nabokov’s novel Pnin, a Russian professor gets lost on his way to a lecture. It’s a comic episode, very slight, nothing serious happens (he makes it on time in the end), but even such quiet uneventfulness is composed of seven or eight junctures or turning points. On the train, he fiddles with his lecture notes and marks an essay, puts one in his Gladstone bag and the other in his jacket pocket, before the conductor points out to him, you’re on the wrong train, pal. At the station, he leaves his bag with an attendant, wanders off to buy a ham sandwich, then comes back to find the guy has been called away—his wife is in labour. Abandoning the bag, Pnin catches a bus and checks his pocket for the speech.

“Counting “progressions” and “stages” can make this approach to writing seem a dry business—an exercise in pure addition. But such complexity is hard to fake, because it’s a by-product of depth. “Real” people produce complexity naturally.

“It’s a test of writing that comes down to wisdom in the end: we look to realist writers for a sense of proportion, to see the different elements of our lives reproduced on the page, and scaled according to how much they matter. They prove themselves, like television chefs, by being able to put it all together in front of our eyes. Sometimes, when they’re good, they change our sense of what matters: they persuade us.”


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