Post-Conference Post #2

And now for a more leisurely report on my weekend at Grub Street’s 2006 “Muse and the Marketplace Conference”:

(For more information and the full 2006 program, including brief descriptions of the many workshops I was not able to attend, click here. By the way, until I figure out how to include captions with the photos you’ll have to bear with me. For the curious, the photo to the right shows Michael Lowenthal and James Wood listening to Grace Paley at the Sunday Keynote Brunch. And if any of you have tips on how to manage such captions [is this something managed through Blogger or through my beleaguered-and-outdated iPhoto program?] please tell me!)

My Saturday highlights included sessions led by Matthew Pearl (“The Thrill of History”) and the aforementioned Michael Lowenthal (“Clockwatchers: Time Management in Fiction”). Pearl’s workshop featured plenty of lively audience discussion on historical fiction: what it is, how we write it, how we read it, what “ethics” may (or may not) apply in working within this field. Pearl also treated us to the first public reading from his new novel, The Poe Shadow. That’s definitely going on my to-read list.

For Lowenthal’s workshop, we’d been e-mailed a reading assignment in advance (this is perhaps a good moment to mention that Grub Street’s conference is exceedingly well-organized). On Saturday, Lowenthal offered an exceptionally detailed close reading of a chapter from Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road to illustrate how a fiction writer can employ chronology as a tool in the fiction “toolbox.” And guess what? We need not rely solely on our beloved space breaks! There are other ways to go back and forth in time in fiction.

Why is this important? Because these shifts, as we saw in the careful analysis of the Yates novel excerpt, can add so much richness to our understanding of a character’s goals and emotions. (The second reading assignment, by the way, was an excerpt from Alice Munro’s story, “Chance,” in the Runaway collection.)

For me, Lowenthal’s workshop was followed by a meeting with an agent in the “Manuscript Mart.” The Manuscript Mart was also conducted really well–Grub “officials” enforced time limits and the agent with whom I met had, indeed, received the materials I’d forwarded through Grub. Even better, she’d enjoyed what I’d sent!

Sunday’s program began, in my case, with James Wood’s very smart session on “How to Narrate.” It was wonderful to hear Wood read–in his British accent–from two Henry James novels. Frankly, as soon as I saw that Wood had given us handouts of James excerpts I knew it would be a seminar I’d like. Since I’ve fairly recently read What Maisie Knew (I took the reading suggestion from Brian Kiteley’s points about this book [a divorce story told from a child’s perspective] in The 3 A.M. Epiphany), I was particularly interested to hear Wood’s comments on that work. But the overall point Wood seemed to emphasize was how a third-person point of view can afford a great freedom. (I’ve always thought so. I usually don’t write fiction in the first-person and have sometimes wondered why it really does seem to appeal to so many writers so often.)

After the morning sessions everyone gathered for the keynote brunch. Grace Paley read from her work and answered questions on the topic of “writers as agents of social change.” She read fiction (a short story titled, “Wants”); nonfiction (an utterly amazing piece–perhaps even more powerful read aloud by the author than it would be on the page, but I haven’t yet tracked it down to find out for certain) called “Three Days and a Question”; a piece she described as between fiction and nonfiction (I didn’t catch the title!); and a poem titled “Responsibility.” (You can read this poem, albeit somewhat piecemeal, here.)

It was all pretty riveting.

Overall, it was a terrific conference. Congratulations to Grub Street on (another) job very well done!

Avoiding Plagiarism

All the recent focus on (possible) plagiarism in the work of a certain young writer has reminded me of an excellent book I reviewed little over a year ago. See my Community College Week review of Charles Lipson’s Doing Honest Work in College: How to Prepare Citations, Avoid Plagiarism, and Achieve Real Academic Success (University of Chicago Press), subsequently posted at Lipson’s Web site.

Lipson also provides many useful links to resources to help writers and teachers do honest work.

The Latest Literary "Scandal"

Although her writerly transgressions–apparently, instances of plagiarism–are by no means the same as those James Frey committed, Kaavya Viswanathan seems to be earning a similar amount of press attention regarding her highly-touted (and highly-paid) debut novel, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life. Instead of sending you to many different sources to read about it, I’m just going to recommend that you keep up with the daily coverage over at GalleyCat.

Don’t get me started on the faults in education today (yes, even at my beloved Harvard, where Viswanathan is a sophomore). Crediting others for their ideas and/or words isn’t something that seems to matter very much anymore. And as students launch into the writing profession there’s little reason to expect more specialized attention to such matters. Even in my MFA program (at another institution) I was treated as a totally unreasonable soul for suggesting that the curriculum should cover source documentation (MLA, CMS…something!) for the single “critical” project we had to do.

If writing educators don’t attend to ethical issues where “critical” writing is concerned, I don’t know how we might begin to hope the situation can improve with “creative” efforts. But it’s obviously high time to think about some real ethics education for creative writers.

Zoo Press: Not Again!

Let me preface this by saying that I believe in writing contests. Yes, there are some bad apples out there, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore the whole bunch. One of the bad apples, though, seems to be a repeat offender. I’m talking about Zoo Press.

I’m far from a disinterested observer here. I entered both Zoo Press fiction contests once upon a time. If you need a refresher on how that turned out, read this piece by Thomas Hopkins (it was published back in 2004 in Poets & Writers magazine).

Now Zoo is in the news again. This time it’s the poetry contest that’s in trouble. I found out about it from the Emerging Writers Network . Click here to find out more.

Thumbs Up for Oprah

I don’t normally watch Oprah Winfrey’s television show. Nor do I usually tape it. In fact, I don’t even know how to set the VCR timer on the television I recently acquired. Though it’s a hand-me-down from its previous owners–my generous parents–it’s still much newer than my truly “old” television and includes ultra-modern “built-ins” for VHS cassettes and DVDs.

But knowing that James Frey would appear on yesterday’s show, I found a solution. I simply left the tape running while I was out. And last night, after I fast-forwarded through preliminary scenes from General Hospital (Oprah follows the soap on the ABC station here in Boston), I settled down to watch.

I didn’t take any comfort in Frey’s obvious suffering. But I was heartened and impressed by Oprah herself. It takes a lot of courage to apologize and to tell your critics that they are “absolutely right” (in this case, for criticizing her impassioned defense of Frey and his book during her now-famous call-in to the Larry King show). Which is what Oprah did.

And she did more. She explained exactly why she is “embarrassed” and upset, and she emphasized the responsibility of publishers (and authors) as they present nonfiction to the reading public. At the same time, she showed Frey compassion, acknowledging that she knew this wasn’t an easy time for him and saying she appreciated his presence on the show.

I also noted her comments about her next book club choice, Night. I’m glad she clarified the history of this choice–that it indeed preceded l’Affaire Frey. I’m one of those who had been a little skeptical about that, and I’m happy to learn that I was wrong. I agree with the commentator who noted the particular importance of yesterday’s show and its emphasis on the primacy of truth given the fact that Night is coming next.

There’s one (hopefully last) point I want to make. I’m not sure I’ve ever understood where people have come up with this idea (still floating around) that a memoir is by definition less “true” than, say, an autobiography.

Way back when I started learning about memoirs, I learned that what differentiated them was scope, not degree of veracity. A memoir examines a portion of a life, an aspect of a life. It doesn’t provide a birth-to-old age chronological account. But the account it provides is, theoretically at least, true to the best of the author’s recollection. It’s not “embellished” just to make the story “better,” meaning, of course “more marketable.”

I’m not entirely alone in my understanding of what defines a memoir. There’s a Brooklyn schoolteacher who’s telling her pupils the same thing: “a memoir is a piece of our personal history highlighting a real-life experience in a specific point in time.” So thumbs up for Mrs. Clarke, too.