The Road to Parnassus; or, A Note on My Approach to Workshop Criticism

A decade ago—man, Nicholas Carr is right, blogging is “like mahjong or needlepoint”—I sent Maud Newton a link to a piece Jay McInerney wrote in 1989 for the New York Times about Raymond Carver, his former teacher (“Raymond Carver: A Still, Small Voice“).

Maud quoted two paragraphs from it about Carver’s gentle approach to teaching (“He said that there was enough discouragement out there for anyone trying against all odds to be a writer”)—but not the anecdote in the very next graf, which is a great bit, and one that doesn’t seem to be all that widely quoted or linked to out there on the Web.

I realized this this past fall, teaching a section of Reading Fiction for Craft at Yale. Some of my students—15 intimidatingly brilliant young minds—didn’t think my feedback on their exercises were critical enough. So I recounted the following story about Carver’s approach to teaching (starting with the last few sentences Maud quoted):

One day when I berated him for going easy on a student I thought was turning out poor work, he told me a story: he had recently been a judge in a prestigious fiction contest. The unanimous winner, whose work has since drawn much praise, turned out to be a former student of his, probably the worst, least promising student he’d had in 20 years. “What if I had discouraged her?” he said. His harshest critical formula was: “I think it’s good you got that story behind you.” Meaning, I guess, that one has to drive through some ugly country on the way to Parnassus. If Carver had had his way, classes and workshops would have been conducted entirely, [sic] by students but his approval was too highly valued for him to remain mute.

Once he sat through the reading of a long, strange story in his graduate writing workshop: as I recall, the story fleshed out two disparate characters, brought them together, followed their courtship and eventual marriage. After a series of false starts they decided to open a restaurant together, the preparations for which were described in great detail. On the day it opened a band of submachine-gun-toting terrorists burst in and killed everyone in the restaurant. End of story. After nearly everyone in the smoky seminar room had expressed dissatisfaction with this plot, we all turned to Ray. He was clearly at a loss. Finally he said softly, “Well, sometimes a story needs a submachine gun.” This answer seemed to satisfy the author no less than those who felt the story in question had been efficiently put out of its misery.

The double meaning of the punch line makes me wince, these days. But the point still resonates.

I don’t know if my (self-aggrandizing?) attempt to compare myself to Carver was at all helpful (“[Professor Hopkins] doesn’t have a hard bone in his body,” one student wrote in her/his evaluation, “but that is okay”).

In spite of my students’ criticism of my criticism, I’m not sure if I’m going to change the way I respond to student work. I don’t know if I can.

The world, as Carver said, is discouraging enough; some of us, I think, need to be the encouraging ones.