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Craft of Writing, Fiction

In Praise of Writers Past

Curtain Calls update: My review from Kirkus should arrive any day now. I hear it in my mind like a ticking clock, or is that a ticking bomb? I’m also looking for readers to provide reviews to Amazon and Goodreads. If you’d like a free ARC for your Kindle, e-reader, or print copy in return for a brief review, please contact me. There’s no obligation that the review be positive.


One of the nicest aspects of taking a workshop class at Hugo House has been the opportunity to read the work of some of the best writers from a few decades ago. Our instructor, Joan Leegant (a pretty great writer of her own), is partial to some of the big names in the short story world, writers like William Trevor, TC Boyle, Jill McCorkle and Bernard Malamud. Most of what I read these days is recent fiction, which I use as a guide to content and style that might make my writing more palatable to the gatekeepers, so it’s been a nice change to revisit (or in some cases, visit) stories that connect to the values from my past.

Make no mistake, those values have changed—rather drastically. It’s hard to reconcile a modern novel like Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?, which I just finished—a book that received dozens of rave reviews, and in which the protagonist ultimately, in order to cure herself of her lust for her ex-boyfriend’s cock, sleeps all night with her nose in his ass (doesn’t really matter what the metaphor is there, does it?), with something like Malamud’s use of fantasy in the search for moral truth[1].

The concept of morality seems to have taken on a parochial meaning in fiction today. The emphasis now is on self-validation, whatever the lifestyle portrayed, and on shock value. But I’ll save that blog for another day.

Granted, I find some of the work of the “establishment” writers, the ones who regularly make it into Best American Short Stories, ponderous and infused with a Disney-like sentimentality, but those previous generation writers still have a lot to teach us, if we care to learn. While reading Trevor I had a little style epiphany—his use of multiple POV, and the seemingly inconsequential details each character noticed, became the literary equivalent of pointillism. Like a Seurat painting, those dots congeal into a panorama when the viewer steps back and looks at the whole thing. The effect is stunning. It’s not something often seen in today’s rather solipsistic fiction.

Malamud holds a special place among the greats for me. About twenty years ago, when I was an undergrad at Cal State Long Beach, I took an English class in literature and composition. My semester project, assigned to me by the instructor, was an analysis of Malamud’s 1959 “The Magic Barrel,” a story I grew to revere as the months went on. My paper turned into a thirty-page tome, which, ahem, was still being used as that professor’s model of a research paper fifteen years after I graduated. How great it was to read some of his work again, grounded as it is in Jewish moralism. Frankly, I found his themes refreshing. I guess if one waits long enough, everything seems new again.

Artistic styles change through time. Whatever one thinks of current trends in fiction, this must occur, as each generation seeks its own truth. Maybe that’s why some older fiction appeals to me, as it’s framed within the values I learned a long time ago. Still, I am enjoying these stories. I will read more of them.

[1] From his essay in The Magic Worlds of Bernard Malamud, pp 47-61.


About Joe Ponepinto

Co-publisher, with Kelly Davio, of Tahoma Literary Review. Author of "Curtain Calls," a featured Kirkus Review. Married to Dona. Dad to Henry, the coffee-drinkin' dog.


14 thoughts on “In Praise of Writers Past

  1. Hi, Joe. While I spread myself around in terms of what eras I read from, and also do a fair amount of world fiction translated into English, I’ve lately been reading a lot of short stories, first from Alice Munro (“Too Much Happiness”) and now Alix Ohlin (“Signs and Wonders”). It’s a weird coincidence, but both writers are Canadian. The weird part isn’t in their fiction, it’s that I just happened to select them one right after the other from the library website just by looking at the picture of the books’ front covers. Anyway, I’m becoming more and more reconciled to short fiction works, though novels are the most convenient to blog on. I wish you the best of luck with your book, and look forward to seeing it, however that takes place. I feel a novel is also something you will be good at, though your previous book was short stories.

    Posted by shadowoperator | March 20, 2015, 11:56 AM
    • Thanks, Victoria. I appreciate your faith in my ability to write a novel. I’m just finishing another, doing what I hope is a final rewrite before querying agents, and I’m trying to do it in as brief a period of time as possible. That’s because it helps maintain the consistency of plot details and theme. If I take my time and space the process out, I find that some of those details start to slip. As I’m going through this time I’m amazed at how many little errors like that can happen in 300 pages.

      Posted by Joe Ponepinto | March 22, 2015, 9:15 AM
  2. I recently discovered John Gardner’s essays On Moral Fiction and On Becoming a Novelist. Even in the late 70s / early 80s he was decrying the lack of moral sensibility in literary fiction. And I think he has a point, though it could be pushed too far.

    Oddly enough, I’m finding the most morally resonant novels I’ve encountered recently are in the fantasy genre (but not the childish Good Blond Northerners vs. Evil Dark South- /Easterners that outsiders think of when they hear “fantasy”) . Recent authors like Steven Erikson, Sofia Samatar, and Daniel Abraham bring storytelling panache and challenging moral conflicts to bear, without compromising the genre elements that fans look for.

    Posted by arichaley | March 22, 2015, 11:40 AM
    • Actually I would think that fantasy lends itself to a more traditional discussion of morality, since the author must adhere to the genre’s rules for world building. I’m no fantasy expert, but there does seem to be a good vs evil component in most of that work. It’s the literary world that I think has veered from its moral center, since the genre is more of an “anything goes” area in which writers are free to explore any culture or lifestyle. That’s been taken to mean validation of any difference or perversion, without concern as to the fallout from its argument. That, I suppose, is the price we must pay for unrestricted speech and imagination, to have to read and appreciate those things we find personally abhorrent.

      Posted by Joe Ponepinto | March 22, 2015, 8:25 PM
      • An issue that complicates discussions of morality is that people of authoritarian religious persuasions frequently attempt to bend the conversation to be an issue of right vs. wrong (based on some objective standard they – but not others – adhere to). The older I get, the more I agree with Schopenhauer’s “Compassion is the basis of all morality.” (I believe this puts me in agreement with Robert Hoffman’s comment below.) Literature has an important role to play in the development of compassion, but that said, I don’t enjoy spending a lot of time “in the head” of a hateful protagonist (despite having written a crime/antihero novel).

        You would be surprised by the fantasy genre these days; there are still the old school Good/Evil tropes, but the cutting edge is either the completely amoral antihero “grimdark” subgenre, peopled by rogues and assassins, or some folks like I mentioned above, who don’t pull any punches when it comes to gritty social realism, but manage to make you care at the same time.

        Posted by arichaley | March 25, 2015, 10:06 AM
      • Schopenhauer wasn’t wrong, but then, how does one define compassion? Is it an expression of sympathy and an attempt to understand the other person, or is it a sacrifice (best done anonymously) on behalf of someone? Or perhaps it’s in the creation of opportunity for others who have few? Schopenhauer’s statement leads me to think that compassion is the feeling, morality the act.

        Posted by Joe Ponepinto | April 1, 2015, 6:53 AM
  3. I’m having a rather tough time with the subject of morals, it seems. I’ve just finished Julian Barnes’ History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters and, very much like your comment on pointillism (which sound amazing, by the way), he seasons the work with morality. But he also leaves it to the reader to decide. What is your moral base? I’ve been enthralled with Keats’ Negative Capability — being able to and willing to experience life in another person’s shoes [my ultimate take] and it seems to me this approach to literature might very well be a component of this paradigm. Even the losers get to write history. Pretty forward thinking.

    Posted by Robert Hoffman | March 25, 2015, 9:16 AM
    • We like to think of morality as an absolute, or at least hope that such a definition exists. But I find in my experience that morality is more culturally-based. The people in every culture believe they are right, and others are either wrong or misguided, that God will someday swoop down and proclaim, “Yup, the Jews/Catholics/Shiites/Druids are right, and the rest of you will burn in hell.” I’ve been dabbling in a morality born of scientific inquiry, one that is based on the evidence we’ve been able to determine about the origin and nature of the universe. The best thing about that is its rejection of the idea of the self-centered individual, which seems to be the morality in our society (and our literature) today.

      Posted by Joe Ponepinto | April 1, 2015, 7:07 AM
      • I tend to agree with morality as a social construct and because of that, I’m more inclined to consider ethical (personal) acts as being more essential to our nature. In a world of cannibals, the one who abstains is a monster.

        Posted by Robert Hoffman | April 1, 2015, 11:17 AM
      • Sounds like a Twilight Zone episode. Thanks, Robert.

        Posted by Joe Ponepinto | April 1, 2015, 12:00 PM
  4. Re: solipsism in litfic — Do you think it’s a consequence of more of the literary reading public having grown up with solipsistic YA/teen novels?

    Posted by arichaley | March 25, 2015, 10:08 AM
    • That question places too high a value on literature, I think. Ultimately, water finds its own level and I think people do, too. Literature offers a few grand shoulders to stand on so we might be able to see a little further, but in the end, we’re still the same folk we used to be.

      [not commenting on the life or purpose of Jesus Christ] but I do find the notion of “love your neighbor as yourself” a pretty grand idea, if not nigh to impossible. I recently had a discussion with a friend about his wife who once stated she loved him more than herself — and he said, ‘therein, lies the problem. Until you can learn to love yourself more than me, then we will always be at odds.’ She said that she had a hard time loving herself (abusive childhood, etc, may sound like a cliche, but they exist). The man gave her a hug. Gotta love yourself first.

      I think the idea of deciding for one’s self that the self is ‘pretty okay’ is so antithetical to what “others” would like you to believe — You’re feeling pretty good about yourself is a threat to me (society says) — that when we run across it in literature, we call that person a hero, or an ant-hero, or Holden Caufield. Heh — how in the world did I get this far? Nice discussion, Arichaley and Joe — thanks.

      Posted by Robert Hoffman | March 25, 2015, 11:13 AM
      • Funny you should mention the “Golden Rule”. If you push it in the maximalist direction, you get the so-called “Platinum Rule” (beloved of would-be customer service gurus): “Treat others the way they want to be treated.” (This to me is an improvement, because some of my hyper-religious associates define “love” in rather nonstandard ways.) Or you could go back to the Jewish sage Hillel, for the minimalist version: “Don’t do to others what you wouldn’t want them to do to you.”

        What shocks me on a near-daily basis is how few people seem to consider others’ perspectives at all.

        Posted by arichaley | March 25, 2015, 11:35 AM
      • I might change that Platinum Rule to “Treat others the way they need to be treated.” The root cause of our current solipsism is the idea that what others “want” is always good. Plus, in the business world it’s all bullshit anyway. I will treat you the way you think you want, so that you’ll give me what I want. But then, who gets to decide what others need? Or want? Since there’s no answer to these questions, we will always have literature.

        Posted by Joe Ponepinto | April 1, 2015, 7:14 AM

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