Bewildering Stories

The Critics’ Corner

D. A. Madigan writes about...

the Critics’ Corner in issue 142

Dear Don,

That any story of mine would become the subject of such lucid, insightful, and incisive commentary is a wonder to me. I sincerely appreciate the time and effort you, Tomi, and C. have spent on this.

Now, to respond:

“Positive” was written as a blatant attempt to win a local creative writing contest several years back. It is totally unlike anything else I have ever done. It is meant to be manipulative, grim n’ gritty and, most of all, “literary.”

I normally despise “literature,” but this writing contest had a $2,000 first prize. So, I buckled down to try to write something that might appear in, say, The New Yorker or some place like that, because that was the sort of story that had won this contest over the past couple of years it had been being held.

“Positive” didn’t win anything; in fact, like all my submissions to that contest over the years, it was swallowed up in the black hole of the editors’ in-box and I never heard a word about it again. One of the very pleasant things about Bewildering Stories is that not only do you guys actually print my work, but occasionally someone comments on it as well.

I have no disagreements with any of the various points Tomi, C., and you yourself have made about the story. “Positive” was written to a specific end, and it failed to achieve that end. I personally think it’s a pretty decent story for what it is (the contest requirements specified no submissions longer than, I believe, 2,500 words), but, as noted, it’s not the sort of thing I normally write.

What I normally write is exactly what I like to read: interesting stories about interesting people doing interesting things in interesting places. I normally enjoy a little more action and adventure in my stories, and tend to write in the science fiction and fantasy genres, since that’s what I mostly peruse for pleasure.

I don’t write for the sake of art, or to say anything meaningful; I write to express myself, and in hopes of entertaining anyone who may happen to stumble across something I’ve written. To my mind, providing another sentient mind with an escapist ramble into another place, however, necessarily brief that imaginary excursion may be, is a high calling.

To put it mildly, the world gravely sucks today; those with the power to make significant changes to it seem bent on making it suck worse. Fantasists have never been more essential to our day-to-day sanity.

I do indeed appreciate the “buzz” this story has generated, and once again, I thank everyone who commented on it. That the story has flaws I have no doubt, nearly everything I write... hmmm no, I imagine EVERYthing I write has flaws, as well.

But I can rattle off a quick list of some of my favorite creators in various different forms of media: Joss Whedon, Robert A. Heinlein, John D. MacDonald, Frank Miller, Steve Englehart, Peter O’Donnell, Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Lois McMaster Bujold, Barbara Hambly, Frank Capra, Arthur Miller, and I could go on and on and none of them ever produced a perfect work of art, either. (Well, I don’t know. I guess The Crucible comes pretty close.) I certainly don’t even remotely place myself in a category with any of those fine folks, but if titans like those made mistakes when they wrote, I am content to make mistakes in my own work, as well.

Primarily, I write to please myself, and, hopefully, to please whatever audience I may have. I suppose that makes me a hack. Tobias Wolffe once refused to let me into one of his graduate-level creative writing courses at Syracuse University back in the early ’80s. He advised me that, based on the writing samples I had submitted, he felt I had great talent, but he was concerned I wanted to use that talent improperly, i.e. to write commercial, marketable fiction that would entertain people and make money, rather than, you know, convey great (and generally miserable) truths about The World As I Saw It.

Or, as I guy I knew at the time put it, “he wants to teach people whose journals will be discovered, published, and win a Pulitzer Prize six months after they starve to death in a garret.”

“Positive,” I suspect, is a short story that might well have gotten me admitted to Professor Wolffe’s class. And that about sums up how I feel about it. It’s not the kind of fiction I generally read, or generally write. It failed to succeed at the one goal I set for it, but I’m happy it’s been well received here. And beyond that, I defer to everyone else, whose opinions on it are going to be considerably more objective than mine, anyway.

Thanks again,

D.A. Madigan

Copyright © 2005 by D.A. Madigan

Thank you for the enlightening and personal letter, D. A.! You tie together succinctly and dramatically a number of issues discussed in issue 142: the point of view problem in “Positive,” paying markets, and writing for message or for fun.

I don’t think you have anything to apologize for in “Positive.” You’ve given our contributors a model of a very difficult style: the narrative of a child’s thoughts. In that way I think it will stand as a classic alongside Ian Arbuckle’s Made It Way Up, although Ian’s Kelly is somewhat older than your Maria. The question of Maria’s awareness remains, of course. I don’t know how that dilemma can be solved.

A pure hack thinks only of externals: “Will this word sell ?” A pure artist thinks only of internals: “Will this word fit ?” At the extremes, both the hack and the artist starve in the same garret. Rather, the hack must think of art, and the artist must think of an audience. Beyond that, selling is a matter of marketing, not writing.

“Message” is a monster under the bed for today’s writers and editors. Should one then write purely for “fun”? It’s a false choice. Everything has a “message” of some sort. It may be in plain sight. That’s not necessarily bad: Montaigne made “message” into an art form with his Essais, and the Fables of La Fontaine are the greatest lyric poetry of their time; both have sold like hotcakes ever since. Or the message may be dramatized but unstated, as in “Positive.” Or the reader can have fun by digging a little, as in Danielle Parker’s “Thief of Joy and Light.” And there’s everything in between: I’ve written a few myself, but the “message” is not always what it seems to be on the surface.

All true stories point to something beyond themselves, whether by moral, message, or implication. It depends on the style; and, to adapt an adage, styles are the writers themselves. Understanding and insight are where the readers come in.

Copyright © 2005 by Don Webb

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