Blog

LOOKING BACK: SEWANEE WRITERS’ CONFERENCE 2006

First, the scene:

 Sewaneee, TN, home of The University of the South–10. 000 acres, 1300 students (most gone for the summer).   Seat of the the Episcopal Diocese of East Tennessee. Sylvan setting–green expanses, yet no sprinkler systems (odd sight for a Californian), limestone, neo-gothic halls and churches. Streets named for Diocesan states (Library on the corner of Georgia/ Alabama.) A cemetery with founders’ headstones proclaiming them officers, C.S.A. 90+ miles from Nashville, 50+ from Chattanooga. The town= convenience store, coffee shop, ice-cream store, post office, a few other establishments. Nearest town = Monteagle, pop. 1238.  A place and time to gather and meditate, cultivate, read, listen, write.

For More background and thoughts from last year that come close to matching my own feelings, check out beatrice.

The way it went:

No need to review the list of notables (click on the website in the title above if you want to know.) Fiction writers (poets and playwrights also have workshops and do readings at the plenary sessions) were divided into groups of 15 with two author/teachers sharing the leadership duties. We met every other day, so there was a chance to observe other groups meeting on alternate days. Sewanee, like other conferences, sets up a fine program of readings and lectures. The differences between this and other conferences I’ve attended are time (Breadloaf is about the same length, but I’ve not been there.) and money. In addition to a sum from his estate, Tennessee Williams bequeathed the rights to his works to the Sewanee conference because his maternal grandfather (Rev. Walter E. Dakin) who graduated from the UofS’s School of Theology.  In addition to the participants, there is a staff of “Scholars” and “Fellows” who help tend to logistical duties such as setting up receptions and running people back and forth to the airport  in return for tuition and board. Perhaps a small stipend, though I don’t know that. The scholars are promising writers. The fellows have published novels. I think I’ve got that right, anyhow. They join the workshops as regular participants, and their work is critiqued along with everyone else’s.  The level of writing and discussion is high.

As for me, the short story I submitted for review (not the one that got me in) got shredded in group, but I did a partial rewrite in time for my hour-long conference with Barry Hannah, and determined I was at last headed in the right direction. In addition, he reviewed some of my other work and told me to go back to what I was doing before I started trying to write kind of story the group had savaged (CF Millard story on the “Writing” page.)

How it turned out:

In addition to making new personal and literary friends and contacts, I’ve identified my voice, quit trying to self-consciously write literary fiction, and feel as if I’ve laid a burden down. Would that every two weeks of my life were so fruitful.

What about you?

This is the time of year for conferences. Where have you been? How did it go? How did it turn out?

CLEAVE UNTO LITERARY FICTION AND FORSAKE ALL OTHERS?

  The litblog co-op recently began naming “Read This!” books with the aim of promoting “authors and presses . . . struggling to be noticed in a flooded marketplace.” A laudable goal, and the editors deserve huge credit for their undertaking. However, their selection of Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories engendered a discussion of (among other matters) whether the book was genre (mystery or detective in this case) fiction or “deserved” to be classified as literary fiction.

I acknowledge that these classification systems have their uses–shelving n bookstores, for example. However I found the tone of many comments almost comic in their assumption that literary fiction is ipso facto the highest form, that all others deserve at best a seat at the foot of the literary table, or should perhaps even be refused entrance to the main hall. I’m reminded of similar discussions about the sanctity of those books which are “character-driven” or “voice-driven” as opposed to (Oh, No!) “action driven.”

Back in the day–as you can see from my snapshot, that’s a way-back day, indeed–there were no MFA writing programs.  When I graduated as an English major, a few “creative writing” courses had popped up on the university scene. We laughed.  Who taught Faulkner creative writing? Or Joyce? Or Yeats? Was some earnest professor to provide the world with its next Fitzgerald? Despite our derision, of course, “creative writing” has grown into an MFA industry. What’s more, some damn fine writers have come out of those programs. At least one Pulitzer Prize winner that I know of–Michael Chabon via University of California at Irvine. Would he and other terrific authors have produced their high-quality work without their MFA’s? Impossible to prove, but to deny the schools all credit would be foolish at best.

Yet, the industry has also produced (predictably, I guess) some silly pretensions, and this business of holding no other writing gods sacred save whatever we hold to qualify as Literary Fiction is one of them. I suggest–just as was happening when my classmates and I sneered at the idea of teaching the art of writing fiction–that there’s more snobbery than quality-assessment going on here.