Saturday, January 10, 2009

Form Over Style in ESL Fiction Workshops

For the first time today I attended the monthly Silverfish Books fiction forum, a group that is advertised as an opportunity for fiction writers to share their work. There were 17 people at the forum but only three people were reading their work, and most of the other people present seemed to be also writers and not just friends dragged along for the writers' moral support. The levels of experience with writing varied from contest winners and those with a first book to novices who'd yet to volunteer to share their work.

There was no announcement of etiquette except that the moderator stressed that we were there to discuss "storytelling" and not "editing," which ruffled my feathers a bit because telling a good story isn't only plot, but also language. One control over our not discussing sentence level was that people didn't bring copies so we couldn't see the stories for ourselves. Anyway, the general process was that someone read a story, then we commented on it while the writer more or less sat in silence, which is typical of most workshops. What was different is that we bypassed the cursory positive comments before cutting our teeth on constructive criticism. The criticisms were about believability, cliches, character development, continuity, conflict, and mostly anything that wasn't word choice.

When I taught intro to creative writing, I used Janet Burroway's The Art of Fiction and encouraged the students to think about plot and style together as a package,
but in reflecting on the language criticism ban, I see the argument that developing writers who aren't writing in their native language should start by telling good stories in English and then secondly by telling them well. In Bahktin's sujet and fablua distinction, then the assumption is that with a better plot and form, better style will follow. I didn't use that approach to creative writing, but in the composition classroom my pedagogy included a belief that with better research and critical thinking processes before the drafting stages, a better-crafted draft would result.

In any case, I am going to the fiction forum again next month. And I don't think this post would be complete without a mention of what today's stories were about: bankrupt film maker makes Malaysian porn film with help of loan shark; workaholic loses wife and daughter and overcomes depression by designing Japanese toilets; and another story that can't be paraphrased, but it includes a chef cooking mushrooms that grow on his daughter. Oh, and did I mention a brief reading from Shih-Li Kow, whose first book was published December? And she's only been writing seriously for two years. Perhaps this Malaysian method of workshopping is worth a shot.

No comments: