Monday, May 27, 2013

Now for all the reading

Whenever I tell people I'm teaching a novel writing class, the first question that inevitably comes up is, "Does this mean you have to read all your students' novels?"  Well, truth is, different teachers have different approaches to such a class, and so they each will have their own stories to tell--which is why I'm hoping that an AWP panel on this subject, one that has been proposed for the 2014 Seattle conference by fearless novel writing instructor Cathy Day, gets accepted--but the long and short of it is: Yes, that's exactly what it means.  For me, at least, this is what it means.  I don't think it's fair to ask a student to commit to such an ambitious project like finishing the complete a draft of a novel without also offering to read it and give her feedback.  After all, the students are making one heck of an investment of time and personal energy for your class; it's the least you can do for them.  Even if that means extending the spring semester into your summer.

Our spring semester has been over for three weeks, so lately I've been delving into the tall stack of my students's novels.  (Btw, I offered to let them post their novels to our class web site instead of actually giving me a paper copy, but nearly every single one of them preferred to just give me the paper copy.  One student, after she printed out her novel, felt strongly that the next time I teach the class I must insist on them printing out paper copies.  She said doing so was a powerful experience for her.  She hadn't quite understood her accomplishment until she saw how thick was her printed novel.)  As I've noted in the past, it was a mixed group of graduate students and undergrads in the class.  So far, I've read three of the graduate students' novels and four of the undergrads.  (Although two of those undergrad novels I had read mostly while the semester was on, because they were in a peer review group with me.)  As much as I love to read and do read it's a sad fact that I'm not a very fast reader.  This is a great quality to have when one reads poetry--you want to fully and slowly ingest a poem's images and its rhythms--but a bad quality for someone who needs to get through, and comment on, over a dozen books.  And hopefully before the summer is done!  To complicate matters even more, I have to get ready to teach a summer semester course--it begins one week from today--and I need to prepare a study abroad proposal for the summer of 2014.  The good news is that I'm finding, as I found the last time I taught the course, that reading my students' novels seems to go faster than reading other novels.  Of course, they are relatively short novels; but more importantly, I think it matters that I know all the authors and even the conditions under which the novels were written.  That ups the intrinsic interest and allows me to move faster.

So far, just like the last time I taught the course, the results are a fascinating mix.  First, the ranges of styles and subjects is perfectly intriguing.  So far I've encountered a near-future sci-fi story; a fantasy story; a highly literary murder/suspense story set in Little Rock; a coming of age novel about a group of college-aged guys in small town Pennsylvania; a YA novel that details a culture clash between a transgendered protagonist and the bible belt town he lives in; a story about a senior in high school who tries to find her bearings as she negotiates the infamous warfare of friendships and boyfriends; and a historical novel, set in 1930s Arkansas,  about the tragically bad choice one woman makes in husbands.  This kind of variety makes the reading burden much lighter,  and I know that the remaining novels I have yet to read are just as various.  The other thing I'm noting about the novels so far is their overall quality.  You'd think that having to write a draft of a novel in one semester would lead to some mighty bad prose as well as some ridiculous, untenable premises.  While I can't say my students' writing has been error free--this is to be expected in a first draft, after all--I've also encountered some passages of evocative description and many stretches of effective dialogue.  More to the point, except for maybe one of them, none of the books has collapsed under the impossibility of its hurriedly thrown together story.  All three of the novels from my graduate students are quite good and quite well-structured.  Amazingly well-structured, actually, given the furnace of activity in which they were composed, and given how busy the lives of those students are.  But my undergraduates' novels have also evidenced some inventive descriptions as well as very deft plotting.  Even in the one undergraduate novel that evidenced crippling structural issues I saw the author aptly play with situations so that the dramatic tension was usefully ramped up in key scenes, so that the protagonist found herself in hotter and hotter water.  That was very smart fiction writing--and, again, that's in the novel that I thought was the least successful of all I've read so far.

I'm just past the halfway mark with my students' novels, and so I can't yet offer any conclusive take.  But I can tell you that I'm honestly enjoying the experience of reading through them.  It doesn't feel like a burden as much as a chance to get know even better all these interesting people who filled up my classroom this spring.  To get to know them, that is, from the inside.  To get to know their imaginations.  I can also tell you that reading these books gives me hope for the future of novel writing.  One student who eventually soured on the course told me that he thought it was a terrible idea to insist on a draft in one semester; he said that any monkey could type out 55,000 words if  you let it type long enough.  (Yes, that's actually the metaphor he used.)  He was certain that my students' drafts would amount to nothing much better than monkey typing: long enough but artistically wtihout merit.  So far, that has definitively not been the case.  So far I can fairly say that I had some talented novelists in class this semester, people who understood how to form an affecting story over 55-60,000 words.  They are showing that to me every day I read, every page I turn.


  1. Congrats to all the students! Such an amazing accomplishment! And kudos to you for reading every word.

  2. Thanks, Sandy. It's actually been fun.

  3. So excited to get feedback! ~Jobe