Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Comic Writing

Comically Concerned writes:

My question comes in two parts. First, I write comic fiction (pale imitations of Wodehouse and Waugh, mostly). I don't enjoy most of the deadly-serious "literary" fiction that seems to be in vogue at the moment; and I find that when I try to write a strictly serious story the process is unenjoyable and the result is pretty lifeless. So, generally speaking, do you think someone like me would benefit from an MFA? Would I be a fish out of water? (Don't get me wrong: I enjoy treating serious subjects, just from a comic and/or satiric point of view.)

Second, are there any programs in particular that cater to comic writers? I've learned from a previous post on your site that George Saunders is at Syracuse, and that Aimee Bender is at USC (or has she left?). Those seem like plausible options. But are there any others?

I don't think CC would be a fish out of water at all. But as far as particular programs go, I'm currently at a loss. Can readers help us out here?

31 comments:

Anonymous said...

Columbia seems pretty open to comic writing. They host a comedy writers lunch series where they bring in comedy writers several times throughout the year and Sam Lipyste and some others are on staff.

Anonymous said...

Join a local comedy club. Why pay 35K to learn comic writing? You probably won't need a MFA degree for that

Anonymous said...

Hmm...Where does Lorrie Moore teach? My mind is blanking on this one, but I know she teaches in some respected program, and she's a great example of someone who treats serious themes with humor...

Anonymous said...

I think it is a flawed assumption that "literary" fiction cannot be comic. It certainly can be, and frequently is. Hell, Confederacy of Dunces won the Pulitzer. Don't get to caught up in labels, write deep characters and you will create literary fiction.

CC said...

To the first and third Anonymouses: thanks for the tips. Google says Lorrie Moore is at Wisconsin.

To Anonymous #4: I get what you're saying, but I don't have any interest in writing "literary" fiction. We're probably using the word in different ways. To me it stands for all the humorless, self-serious stuff that tries so hard to differentiate itself from "popular" fiction. A lot of people claim that MFA programs tend to churn out this kind of writing, and I wanted to know if this was the case, or if someone like me would fit in.

Anonymous said...

It does seem odd to use "literary ficiton" to mean humorless uber-serious work, when the names that immediatly come to mind for me when I think of modern literary fiction are the likes of Pynchon or David Foster Wallace.

Anonymous said...

I'd also caution against some sort of dichotomy between "literary" and "comic." I mean, just two examples, but both Faulkner and Flaubert are often hilarious. Like, in Madame Bovary the town shopkeeper convinces Bovary to do these insane experiments on a local in hope of winning fame, one of the most hilarious episodes in nineteenth-century lit. And then there's Fielding, and Laurence Strene, and of course Cervantes. Not to mention Dickens.
Maybe watch and see if Jim Shepard leaves Williams (I know he was a finalist for taking over the Iowa program, so it looks like he's trying to jump to an MFA). He'd be another great person to work with on writing humorous stories (I'm basing this mainly on bits of Project X I've heard him read). Basically, any MFA will be what you make out of it. The best way to figure this out would just be when you apply--if a school takes you, that means that like what they say, which means any place you get into would be willing to encourage the writing you want to do.

CC said...

--"It does seem odd to use "literary ficiton" to mean humorless uber-serious work, when the names that immediatly come to mind for me when I think of modern literary fiction are the likes of Pynchon or David Foster Wallace."--

Well, I guess I don't understand what "literary fiction" means. If it includes people like Pynchon and Wallace on one hand, and someone like, say, Alice Munro on the other, then aren't we really just talking about plain-old fiction? And can't fiction be both comic and serious?

--"The best way to figure this out would just be when you apply--if a school takes you, that means that like what they say, which means any place you get into would be willing to encourage the writing you want to do."--

I think you're right. That's probably the best course of action.

Anonymous said...

Literary fiction is a somewhat vague, but not unimportant term, that sepearates fiction as art from fiction as entertainment.

At least, that is a good rule of thumb. Art, of course, can be highly entertaining, but hte difference is when Pynchon writes a novel his primary aim is originality, art and literary value.

When X writes the 25th edition of a YA Chick-lit series X's primary aim is money.

Anonymous said...

"The best way to figure this out would just be when you apply--if a school takes you, that means that like what they say"
oops--I mean saw, not say. But that was probably clear...

CC said...

--"Literary fiction is a somewhat vague, but not unimportant term, that sepearates fiction as art from fiction as entertainment..."--

I think that definition might work in an extreme case--Joyce on one side and a Sweet Valley High author on the other--but really it's always struck me as elitist b.s. People like Shakespeare, Dickens, and Trollope were writing at least as much for money as for art. The only thing that separates them from a Star Wars novelist is that their stuff was good and Star Wars books are bad.

That seems like the more useful distinction: good and bad fiction. "Literary fiction" seems to me like a term invented to win cultural capital for less financially-successful writers. My worry is that MFA programs are kind of notorious for this sort of elitism, and I'm not sure if I would enjoy being in that kind of environment. But I guess the only way to find out is to apply and see what happens.

Anonymous said...

My last definition might have been vague, but it is quite clear there is a substantive difference between what is called literary fiction and what is it is opposed to ("popular fiction" or generic genre ficiton, I suppose).

The same holds for any art form.

Typically in these discussion I find people make a classic slippery slope argument. They think that because the lines blur with certain works and artists and that there is a degree of arbitrariness and subjectivity involved that it means the definitions have no meaning or use. This is the equivelant of saying that since we can't have a 100% clear-cut definition of "mountian" or "hill" and that the cut off between the two is arbitrary and often subjective, that those terms have no actual difference. This is a bad way to look at language.

Anonymous said...

But this is probably way off topic for this blog. Apologies.

The short answer is that you will find elitists anywhere. You will find just as many in popular fiction as literary fiction and amongst fans of both. You will find them in MFA programs and without.

Sometimes the elitism is justified, sometimes it isn't. Oh well.

Anonymous said...

Wow, I'm impressed with the mountain vs. hill analogy. Seems like good way to approach it.

CC said...

--"My last definition might have been vague, but it is quite clear there is a substantive difference between what is called literary fiction and what is it is opposed to ("popular fiction" or generic genre ficiton, I suppose)."--

Well, whatever this substantive difference is (guesses about an author's intent?), it isn't clear to me. I don't see how calling a novel "literary" adds in any way to our understanding of it. Sounds more like a convenient way for the literary in-crowd to tag a writer as "one of us."

But we could go back and forth about this all day. Thanks for the comments, everybody. I'm not sure that they've lessened my concerns about MFA programs, but they've definitely been informative.

Anonymous said...

My writing sample is going to have one piece that's flat out comic and another that's not so much. The not so much piece isn't going to be too heavy, but I'm pretty sure I want to show some range and not just bombard them with the funny. Especially since it seems as though the funny bone is even more fickle and subjective than any other...anything. That's my plan at least. I'll let ya'll know how it pans out next spring. If someone else has actually applied with just comic pieces and had success (or not), they could probably be of some help about now. Otherwise...next spring I'll let you know.

CC said...

Sounds like a good plan. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Anon 1:10PM:

Thanks, but I thought of a better one: Pornography versus art with nudes.

Would anyone really want to say that there is no difference between an impressionist painting of a nude and a page from Huslter magazine? I think most people would agree the term porno has meaning and is a useful term in various discussions.

But like "literary fiction" or "genre fiction" the line between porn and nude art is blurry (erotica anyone?) and like fiction, the question of intent, an admittedly murky subject, comes up. Is this nude photo porn or art? If the photographers goal was to make art, but he failed, is it merely bad art or do we just call it porn?

I dunno. Murky ground. But I still think pornography can be a usefull term. (And I don't believe it was a term created by elitist artists who wanted to high-five each other and keep down Playboy photographers.)

Likewise, CC, I think "literary fiction" or "romance fiction" or whatever terms we use can be useful in various instances.

Do they add to our understanding of the work? Maybe, maybe not. I don't know if they need to. They just need to have usefullness when discussion something to be worthwhile terms.

To use another analogy, calling a band "punk" may or may not deepen our understanding of the work. In some cases it will, in others not. But it is useful as a short-hand way to describe a band. It can get people who like similar music to check out said band and it can be convienant to organize the band in a music store. Sure, on some abstract level it would be nice to have no genres and everything was just called "music," but on a practical level it would be a pain in the ass to go to Tower records and have every music genre from classical to UK Grime clumped together.

We just need to keep in mind, I think, that genre terms have a limit to their use and we shouldn't get wrapped up in them. But they do have a use too, and we shoudlnt' ignore that. I think, as writers, we are all aware how murky language can be at time.

To continue this analogy, CC, your "isn't it all fiction?" comment reminds me of some debates I've had with music fans. Sometimes I"ll describe a band in some way (lets say "hardcore") and someone will say to me, "why call it hardcore? isn't it all just punk?"

But for every person saying that there is another saying "Why call it punk, isn't it all just rock?" and why call it rock, isn't it all just music? And why call it music, isn't it all just art? etc.

Sorry for the legnth of this off-topic post. I felt I'd explained myself quite poorly above and wanted to elaborate a bit.

Anonymous said...

wow, in that skinny column that looks REALLY long.
Sorry.

CC said...

Anon,

You make some good points about the usefulness of genre categories, and I agree with them. The problem is that "literary fiction," as you've been using it, is so broad as to be meaningless.

In my original question to Tom I used "literary fiction" to mean the humorless, self-serious, overly-introspective fiction that came into vogue in the latter part of the last century and which seems to dominate academic departments and literary magazines. Used in this way, the term "literary fiction" makes sense, because it refers to a finite number of works that have several common factors.

You, however, would throw people like Pynchon and Wallace into the mix, and presumably people like Shakespeare and Austen too. If the boundaries of literary fiction are that big, then they're almost as big as "fiction" itself, and as a result I don't think the term has any real intellectual value.

It does have cultural value, however, in that, because its boundaries are so large, it can be applied to almost any work; but, because it implies a distinction between "literary" fiction and other kinds of fiction, it can be withheld from other works. So the literary in-crowd (academics, magazine editors, MFA types) can use the term to carve out a certain niche in the literary world that they can call their own. David Foster Wallace is never going to compete with Stephen King in sales or popularity, but he can climb to the top of this little niche world that has been partly created by the application of an exclusionary and essentially meaningless term, "literary fiction."

If it were up to me, I wouldn't simply call everything fiction, as you imply. Pynchon would be lumped in science fiction and magical realism, where he belongs. Wallace would go in the comic fiction camp with Evelyn Waugh. Other writers would be filed under plain-old fiction rubric, which is just another word for miscellaneous.

So, in other words, I should have been clearer in my earlier posts, too. I don't object to genres--porn and nudes are not the same thing. But I object to fundamentally meaningless genre categories that are used as weapons in the culture wars.

Okay, sermon over. ;)

Anonymous said...

CC, what are some examples of "literary fiction" as you define it?

andrew and wendy said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
CC said...

Examples? Wait--you want me to actually back up my broad assertions with concrete evidence?

Well, pick up a copy of the New Yorker and chances are you'll see what I'm talking about. The real culprits, I guess, are Virginia Woolf and her ilk, who were admittedly brilliant but about as fun to read as the back of a spraypaint can. I mean, people's problems are impotant, and their inner lives are rich, but the line between honest introspection and self-obsession is a thin one.

Then you can add in all the imitators of Hemingway's flat style, and you're talking about a lot of people. It's what somebody else called "Kmart realism." It has its place, but it's not my cup of tea.

Anonymous said...

CC,

but don't you realize that Pynchon and Wallace are part of the same world?
Their books compete for the same prizes, their short fiction gets published in the same places, their books are on the same companies, etc. as the works you are calling "literary fiction."

"Well, pick up a copy of the New Yorker and chances are you'll see what I'm talking about."

Case in point: Last time I bought a New Yorker, George Saunders was the fiction piece. In fact, every single Suander story in his collections appeared in the New Yorker first. Last time I saw a New Yorker tour, they had actors reading some of their favorite works. One of the ones I saw was a David Foster Wallace piece.

This people are all par tof the same literary ficiotn world.

Anonymous said...

And to put it another way, when you say "you, however" I think its a bit silly. It isn't ME who is calling these people literary fiction. It is everyone. Everyone from the book publishers to book stores to magazines to critics to etc.

OTOH, your definition is pretty much confined to you. You can, of course, use words however you want. But using them in a way fairly unrelated to general usage just makes the conversation confusing.

CC said...

Jesus Christ man, relax. I was just giving my opinions about books. I know they don't jibe with conventional wisdom, and they're probably ill-informed, but that's just the way things appear to me.

Anonymous said...

"Art, of course, can be highly entertaining, but the difference is when Pynchon writes a novel his primary aim is originality, art and literary value."

Not to be a nuisance, but that is absolutely untrue. Pynchon cited exactly those concerns as what held back his early work. Anyone aiming for literary value will probably miss in some big way--unless you're Jonathan Franzen, and you end up on Oprah. Oh, wait...

'Literary' has never been synonymous with realism. As someone pointed out, that kind of bland, simple, wait-for-the-epiphany stuff didn't take off that long ago.(And in my estimation, those are now morphing into non-Caucausian, exotic fruit heavy, "grandmother" stories. This is the new New Yorker story, the Interpreter of Banalities, the Lahiri 'grandma smelled like spice, so overlook my incompetence' vibe... [If you don't believe me, flip through a recent Best American and count how many mention fruit and/or grandmothers in the first 2 goddamned paragraphs!])

I've always taken 'literary' to simply mean 'non-genre'. That is, a story not so reliant on formula. (Although, that sort of breaks down, to, because the wait-for-it: epiphany! stories are downright formulaic. Avant and Po-mo stuff all follow conventions, too...)

In a sense it *is* all elitist bullshit. Melville was considered a genre writer. Dickens and Thackery, too. Hacks, newspapermen--in it for filthy lucre!

I don't think it lies with 'character', either. Scads of 'lit' folks don't give two shits about deep or engaging characters. Will Self, one of our best contemporary novelists, falls into this category, by his own admission. I usually hear the 'character' argument come up when a science fiction writer comes up with a book the AWP types can enjoy. Then they promptly proclaim it 'literature'; the sci-fi guy continues as usual.

It's a thorny issue, a slippery hill. Mountain. Whatever.

Anonymous said...

We should keep in mind that the term "literary fiction" and its opposing terms didn't, but especialy literary fiction, didn't arise until recent history.

So trying to restrospectively say where Melville, Dickens or Shakespere would have fellen might well be a useless exercise.

James said...

Interesting digression guys. I agree mostly with the idea that there will be elitist people at every program and non-elitists at every program. At an MFA program you're there to write, to learn to write, and to find ways to help you sustain that writing (i.e. publishing contacts, teaching experience). That said, even Picasso attended Art School.*

*This is a rather convoluted statement--feel free to check out the Wikipedia bio of him. The gist of what I'm saying is learning more about your art is, in general, a good thing.


But back to topic, Columbia also did a creative writing comedy seminar taught by Mark O'Donnell this semester that was, when I sat in a couple weeks ago, fantastic.

Anonymous said...

CC,
From your last post it seems like you may have cracked from all the heavy discussion. To get back to your dilemma, you may want to approach from a different angle--say, choose a city or state or region of the country that interests you, look up the programs there, check out as many of the faculty's books from the library and see if you like them, find them funny, or at least think you can learn somthing from them. The exposure itself will help. When I did this last fall I found that every one of the programs I liked had at least one person who wrote humorous fiction. There probably won't be a program that's 100% cut-ups, which is good, because I think a good program will
have a variety of voices who can each teach you somthing different about writing. And to be honest, I think going into any program with predispositions against certain writing styles will only take away from your experience, you may find yourself getting embroiled in these sort of theoretical discussions instead of improving your relationship with writing in general.
PS. I've always found Padgett Powell and Barry Hannah two of the most hilarious authors I've ever read, and the most interesting. They teach at U of Florida and Ol' Miss, respectively. Check them out.

Anonymous said...

As for the comic vs. literary debate... I frequently laughed aloud when reading Ulysses.