Mark Athitakis Newsletter #5

Writing fiction; reading about writing fiction; impossibly long fiction.

Front Matter

About a month or so back, I took a fiction-writing class.

That's a hard thing for me to admit---I want a different word, but it does feels an admission, like I’ve done something strange or secret. It's not such a strange thing to do, is it, to write both fiction and criticism? Plenty of writers have done both well: Ralph Ellison, Lorrie Moore, John Updike, Margaret Atwood. But it's also fine to just do one or the other. I've never bought that line about how critics are just failed novelists; I'm sticking with Pauline Kael's line that one doesn't need to be able to lay eggs to know when one tastes bad.

I suppose I'm hesitant to say I write fiction because, well, I haven't been very good at it. And though it's been educational and often edifying to wrangle with the form, the pleasures that come along with doing so have have yet to accrue into a more total feeling of accomplishment. The satisfaction of creating a fully formed, inevitably imperfect but carefully crafted thing remains elusive. 

OK, OK: I haven't written a good novel.

I’ve had this anxiety over writing fiction since I was in college, when I took a workshop with the late Richard Stern, a writer who spent a long time in the peculiar position of being well known for not being well known. He had friends and admirers in Philip Roth and Saul Bellow, which tempered his obscurity and even gave him a certain authority. But I hadn't read him; a copy of his novel Golk, which I repeatedly found impenetrable beyond page 10, guiltily followed me unfinished for two decades until I finally purged it when I moved this summer. Still, I recall he ran the workshop with a certain---I hesitate to say charm. He was...not un-avuncular, I suppose? He found pleasure in fiction, but wanted us to take it seriously.

Either because my memory is foggy or I've willed it to be, I've forgotten the details of the story I contributed to his undergraduate seminar. But I do recall Professor Stern's concluding assessment. What I had written was uncooked. The word has never escaped me: I've spent years imagining that my chief contribution to the Republic of Letters is the pork roast with the forbiddingly pink interior.

Me, writing fiction

But that's my problem, not Stern's. I was, for a long time, a person who took very little things very, very hard, and I'm not entirely cured of that; I can still consume the better part two days thinking about the jerk who cut me off on the highway. But a few years back---around time the time Stern died, for the psychoanalysts in the crowd---I recognized that with this, as with most other things, being a grownup means casting off as much psychic junk as possible from your adolescence. So I wrote a novel, revised it a bit, sent it around. I heard a few nice things, but mostly silence, and nothing like a yes. Consensus: Uncooked.

Last summer I started writing another one, and because my honorarium for judging a writing contest was a free writing class, I took one. Just two Saturday sessions with James Sallis, an accomplished novelist in a variety of genres, but mostly crime fiction---Drive is the novel of his you've likely heard of. If an MFA course is a full-bore culinary class, I basically picked up some knife-sharpening skills. But even that helps. I learned a good deal about choices and visualization, and recognized that I should also probably read more Julio Cortazar. 

But one other thing I got out of it was that I had a lot of company---a lot of people with a novel in the drawer. Back when I was in Professor Stern's class, I would have likely let the anxious and competitive side of me feel dismissive of this people. Now, though, it's good to know that there are plenty of people in the room---not least the teacher---who has a hard time getting the story right. And that with a little more patience I might be able to pull it off too.

Concierge Desk

Novels about novelists are abundant, especially in the age of metafiction, and even serve as the beating heart of some classic novels from Joyce to Roth. But fiction writers are hard to make interesting—-they don’t do much, really, except stress about getting it right. So, three recent books (well, two and a booklet) about the eternal struggle to get it right:

Steven Carter, Famous Writers School (2006): Carter’s seriocomic (but mostly comic) novel exposes a correspondence-school writing teacher with three students: one he wants to undermine, one he wants to bed, and one who wants to do him in. The conclusion is that, at their worst, a writing course is psychoanalysis without guardrails, with everybody projecting their emotions upon everybody else.

Michael Chabon, Fountain City (2010): The 36th issue of McSweeney’s includes a sample of Chabon’s sprawling unfinished novel, less interesting for its contents than for his willingness to expose its shortcomings, and the frisson of despair that accompanied them. “I believe in failure; only failure rings true,” he writes. “Success is an aberration, a random instance devoid of meaning.” 

Lisa Halliday, Asymmetry (2018): Halliday’s brilliant debut mostly got attention for its Philip Roth connection—-they dated for a time, and a central character in the novel is indisputably Roth-like. But its strength is in the way it shows the subtle ways a writer takes experience and makes it into art, especially the urge to resist the feeling that there are some things you can’t, or shouldn’t, write about.

The Concierge Desk takes requests. Drop me a line at and let me know if it’s OK to use your name.

What I'm Reading, Book Dept.

I’m reading John Gardner’s 1985 handbook, The Art of Fiction, because, well, see above. I haven’t wrangled with Gardner’s theories on moral fiction, and his dismissal of The Grapes of Wrath is a touch odd. (Saying Steinbeck needed to spend more time writing about oppressive farm owners is like saying Tolstoy did Anna Karenina a disservice by failing to include the train’s side of the story.) But I’m finding it mostly commonsensical, encouraging if unforgiving: "What the honest writer does, when he's finished a rough draft, is go over it and over it, time after time, refusing to let anything stay if it looks awkward, phony, or forced."

What I'm Reading, Essay Dept.

Sometimes the best criticism is of a book you know you'll never read---you just want a talented writer to just put a book in context for you, which Meghan O’Gieblyn does in her exquisite appreciation ("appreciation") of Marguerite Young's Miss MacIntosh, My Darling in the Paris Review. (If you must read a 1,000-plus-page novel set in the Midwest, though, I'd suggest Leon Forrest's Chicago epic, Divine Days.)  Rebekah Frumkin, whose debut novel, The Comedown, is a wild, well-formed indictment of the druggy, distanced legacy of much of Boomerdom, explores the way that LSD culture was never very drop-out, and instead became easily exploitable in the name of productivity. My beloved Nationals, now formally, mathematically eliminated from playoff contention, has some lamentable fans.

End Notes

A good story has something to say but keeps it simple, right? Much like a country song. Robbie Fulks has written a stack of good ones, like this:

Thanks for reading. Send correspondence to mathitak@gmail.comBuy my book. Headshot illustration by Pablo Lobato.