Thursday, 24 March 2011


In his recent Paris Review interview, Jonathan Franzen talks about masks, quoting Nietzsche: ‘Everything that is deep loves the mask’. According to Franzen, ‘The amorphous, unconscious, naked soul is a horror.’ He says the most terrifying scene in Rilke’s Malte Lauride Brigge involves a woman on a park bench puts her face in her hands and then looks up with a naked face, a horrifying Nothing, having left the mask in her hands.

'Rilke anticipated the postmodern insight that there is no personality, there are just these various intersecting fields: that personality is socially constructed, genetically constructed, linguistically constructed, constructed by upbringing. Where the postmoderns go wrong is in positing a nullity behind all that. It’s not a nullity, it’s something raw and frightening and bottomless. It’s what Murakami goes looking for in the well in The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. To ignore it is to deny your humanity.'
There are four German books – Malte, Berlin Alexanderplatz, The Magic Mountain and above all The Trial – that Franzen describes as ‘primal’.

‘In each of these books the fundamental story is the same. There are these superficial arrangements; there is the life we think we have, this very much socially constructed life that is comfortable or uncomfortable but nonetheless what we think of as “our life”. And there’s something else underneath it, which was represented by all those German-language writers as Death. There’s this awful truth, this maskless self, underlying everything. And what was striking about all four of those great books was that each of them found the drama in blowing the cover off a life. You start with an individual who is in some way defended, and you strip away or just explode the surface and force that character into confrontation with what’s underneath.’
What I found particularly interesting in this is the recognition that this is exactly what my WiP has been trying to (literally) pull off, although I hadn’t been thinking of in terms of a mask. I was aiming to reveal something ‘true’ about my principal character by metaphorically stripping him bare, but it doesn’t quite work. Perhaps that’s because nakedness isn’t enough. I need to go deeper than that, and strip him of his mask too.

Monday, 14 March 2011

Creative Writing MAs and MFAs

The latest edition of the Paris Review has been lying unread on my desk for a couple of months and yesterday I decided to finally find the time to read it. I was particularly interested in the interview with Jonathan Franzen, especially after my post yesterday about the creative writing MA I’m taking. Franzen says he very nearly took a creative writing MFA himself but didn’t in the end, mainly due to financial considerations.

However, he and his then-wife had their ‘own little round-the-clock MFA programme’ (she was a writer, too). Franzen’s personal MFA programme lasted six years, three times longer than the usual programme. During this time, as well as writing, he says he read fiction four or five hours a night every night for five years. Plus, he didn’t have to deal with ‘all the stupid responses to writing that workshops generate’.

I can certainly relate to that sentiment. There was a classic example of it at in my MA workshop last week. One of my fellow students had submitted a short story that was pretty much perfect – well-rounded characters, interesting story, great pace, an inevitable-yet-surprising ending – and yet because we had 40 minutes set aside to discuss it people began to get picky over minor plot points in the story and by the end of the session they were suggesting some major rewrites.

Perhaps she shouldn’t have brought such a polished piece of work to the workshop, but I do think the whole episode is indicative of what can be a downside of the dreaded workshop. Billy Collins got it spot-on, I think. It may even be indicative of the MA as a whole.

Jonathan Franzen says that, in retrospect, he is now glad he didn’t take the MFA programme he was offered. It might have smoothed out of his work some of the kinks that were better not smoothed out. He says: ‘As a journalist, I’m always trying to become more professional, but as a fiction writer I’d rather remain an amateur.’

Sunday, 13 March 2011

I haven't posted for a while...

...I’ve been writing a novel. I’ve also been taking a creative writing MA. I decided to take the course because I wanted to move away from what began to seem to be the almost magnetic pull of genre fiction. Although my limited success as a writer has usually involved crime stories I really wanted to write a serious novel. I’d always been told you should ‘write what you read’, and I read mostly literary fiction. I thought taking the MA would help. But the magnetic pull back to crime fiction is still there. What has surprised me most though is that, although our reading list contains absolutely no genre fiction, some of the tutors are pushing me back towards a life of crime. After all, it’s the sort of novel that sells.

But is it the purpose of a creative writing MA to concern themselves with markets? I’m not sure. I decided to take the MA because I wanted to focus on the art of fiction rather than the business of it. I also had half an eye on the American trend in which the route to publication is now typically via a university MFA programme. It’s a growing trend here in the UK, too. It’s just that some universities here don’t appear to be sure of what their version of the MFA is intended to achieve.