In which we get to feel what we really feel.
In this post, I’d like to offer you an exercise that will take a little effort on your part, but that is, I think, well worth it.
Go online, or in-person to your local indie bookstore or library and, identify a good literary journal. Or maybe you have one on your bookshelf. If not:
Borrow it, or better yet, buy it, so we can support our local bookstores.
Count the number of short stories in there. Let’s say there are nine. Don’t read them yet.
Randomly write down four numbers between 1 and 9. For this example, I’ll choose 2, 4, 8 and 9).
Extract the first paragraph of each of the corresponding four stories. In my case, this would be the second, fourth, eighth and ninth story. Try to ignore the author’s name.
Now read those first paragraphs, once each, and quickly.
Rate them, from Best to Worst. This should be a quick, visceral process.
Take a walk or get a snack or whatever. Don’t read Part Two yet. I mean it. 😊 I am putting in two birds, a bear, and a deer, below, to enforce this:
Also, this photo of a woman enacting some radical preference re apples:
Explain why you rated the paragraphs the way you did. The trick here is to look honestly at why you ranked them that way. Don’t build up reasons; rather, recollect them. What was it that put you off? Why did the other win easily? And so on. Any answer is fair (except a false, constructed one.)
Note how vague my instructions were. “Rate them, from Best to Worst.” I failed to say by what criterion. Therefore, you provided it. On what basis did you make your ranking? And what does this tell you about your natural taste, vis-à-vis prose?
Here. we’re talking here about what I like to call “radical preferences” – the sorts of preferences that can’t be defended and don’t need to be. These are a window into that ornery artistic part of you that just likes this and doesn’t like that. I had one student rank a paragraph dead last because it had too many descriptions of vegetation in it. My response: There you go! Fair enough! (We like what we like.)
The idea is that, when we write and revise, we are trying to get in touch with, and honor, and use, and play around in, these radical preferences. They are all we have. They are what differentiate us from every other writer in the world.
Isn’t that at least part of what you love about your favorite writer? The sense that she is joyfully indulging herself in preferences she isn’t bothering to defend? And that eventually these make perfect sense?
So, in the comments, tell us something about what was operating in you as you chose. And let’s focus on what you felt. In the spirit of respect for our fellow artists, let’s leave the writers out of it – don’t mention any by name, don’t identify the magazine, and try not to include details about the story that might let those “which story, by who” cats out of the bag. We want to talk more about the characteristics of the piece that attracted or repelled us, and should be able to do that without naming names and so on. (We wouldn’t want to hurt any feelings.) But it’s O.K. to have a strong, even savage, opinion, even a negative one, and this is easier and more respectful if we keep the names out of it. (In “real” class, this isn’t such a big thing, but since this is a public forum…)
The overarching question here is: what compels you to keep reading and what pulls you out of a story? If you’re like me, you may find that the answers are related to deeper things - who you are as a person, why you choose (generally) the way you do, and so on.
P.S. We’re going to be offering a special thing for paid subscribers - a chance to ask Boris Dralyuk, the wonderful translator of the version of “My First Goose” we’ve been reading, some questions, and then get some answers, behind the paywall. So if you’re thinking of subscribing, now might be a good time. This will be happening over the next week or so.
P.P. S. Some happy news, at least for me - the paperback of A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is now available. You can get it from Indiebound here.
All rules should be enforced with two birds, a bear, and a deer.
Hello Dear George Saunders. I Hope you re doing well. I think this time you can read my comment since it is Thursday. I am proud to announce you that I have translated your precious Lincoln in the Bardo into Farsi language and it is well received in Iran by the readers. I would be so happy if I could send you a copy of it.