English 4011:  Advanced Creative Writing: Fiction Spring 2005


Fiction & the List


Brian Kiteley


Office: Sturm Hall, 487C ● Phone: 303-871-2898 ● Email: bkiteley@du.edu


NOTE:  This graduate fiction workshop is open ONLY to MA and Ph.D candidates in the English Department.


TEXTS:  Xeroxed course packet with the exercises and advice, available at the book store; Robert Walser, Selected Stories (New York Review of Books edition); Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet (Richard Zenith translation—Penguin edition); Don DeLillo, Americana; and Biting the Error: Writers Explore Narrative, edited by Mary Burger, Robert Glück, Camille Roy, and Gail Scott.


ABOUT THE EXERCISES:  There are no set rules for your use of the exercises from the course pack.  You may use them often or less often.  I do wish to discuss the book as a teaching device, for pedagogical purposes, so it would be useful to try at least a handful of them during the term.


ABOUT THE COURSE:  This graduate fiction workshop will focus primarily on another essential method of constructing narration than in a linear fashion—the list.  These three writers (Walser, Pessoa, and DeLillo) in very different ways construct their stories out of repetitions, rather than cause and effect.


Hand in the exercises by Friday at noon in our mailboxes, the week before the class (or preferably at the class session the week before).


You are each responsible for two 200-400 word critiques of each others’ work—meaning, you’ll write a critique of everybody’s work twice (of the four sets of writing everyone is producing).  Give me a copy of these critiques.


Read, in Walser, “Response to a Request,” “Trousers,” “Kleist in Thun,” “The Job Application,” “Helbling’s Story,” “Nervous,” “The Walk,” “Dostoevsky’s Idiot,” “Am I Demanding?” “A Sort of Speech,” “Essay on Freedom,” and “Thoughts on Cezanne.”



Three-Dimensional Thinking


The contemporary, accepted meaning of the word list is a catalogue or roll consisting of a series of names, figures, or words.  In early use, a list was a catalogue of the names of persons engaged in the same duties or connected with the same object (useful to keep that in mind—a gathering of details around one concept).  The word list derives from an old French word for a strip of paper.   Obsolete uses of the word include art, craft, or cunning.  Pleasure, job, and delight, as well as longing and appetite, precede the notion of inventory.  One also lists, inclining to one side, as a ship or a drunk does.  An inventory is a detailed list of such as goods and chattels, or parcels of land, found to have been in the possession of a person at his decease or conviction, sometimes with a statement of the nature and value of each.  Inventory and list both represent a mortal accounting of the things left of a life.  Novels have had similar urges, to account for the things and actions left behind by a life (E. M. Forster said the novel represents “life by time,” as opposed to the more ancient desire to portray “life by values”).


The inventory story (Charles Baxter’s phrase) might seem like a relatively rare phenomenon.  I propose that it is not so rare.  We are accustomed to the cause and effect of narrative.  Steve Evans, a critic of poetry, says “mimesis is tied to conformity.”  There is, he suggests, an “overwhelming urge to do what others do when representing reality.”  The list as an operating metaphor for narration is also linear (as is most traditional fiction), but it cuts off the notion of cause and effect at its roots.  An ancient inventory story is the myth of Cadmus, who slew a dragon and sewed the dragon’s teeth into the earth.  Up grew an army of soldiers.  The myth is supposed to represent the new preference for alphabetic languages (over hieroglyphic languages).  The dragons’ teeth are the alphabet, another list.  Priests of fierce learning were the only men able to read hieroglyphics.  The alphabet was more accessible, making written language the domain of generals, as well as priests.  This new language system moved the power away from the intellectuals and into the hands of the military/industrial complex.


There’s a line I like from one of the Star Trek movies.  Spock is advising Kirk on how to battle Khan, a 20th century result of a eugenics experiment gone bad, brilliant and megalomaniacal (he was frozen and revived in the 23rd century).  Spock says as much—that Khan is very smart, but his tactics betray two-dimensional thinking.  The implication is that Kirk has been trained in space wars, where you have to look not only in every direction along one plane, but up and down, with planes intersecting you at every possible angle.  The inventory story is three-dimensional thinking.



The Annals of Saint Gall


709.  Hard Winter.  Duke Gottfried died.

710.  Hard year and deficient in crops.


712.  Flood everywhere.


714.  Pippin, mayor of the palace, died.

715.  716.  717.

718.  Charles devastated the Saxon with great destruction.


720.  Charles fought against the Saxons.

721.  Theudo drove the Saracens out of Aquitaine.

722.  Great crops



725.  Saracens came for the first time.


Hayden White, in The Content of the Form, comments on this list (The Annals of Saint Gall):


This list immediately locates us in a culture hovering on the brink of dissolution, a society of radical scarcity, a world of human groups threatened by death, devastation, flood, and famine.  All of the events are extreme, and the implicit criterion for selecting them for remembrance is their liminal nature.  Basic need—food, security from external enemies, political and military leadership—and the threat of their not being provided are subjects of concern; but the connection between basic needs and the conditions for their possible satisfaction is not explicitly commented on.  Why “Charles fought against the Saxons” remains as unexplained as why one year yielded “great crops” and another produced “floods everywhere.”  Social events are apparently as incomprehensible as natural events.  They seem merely to have the same order of importance and unimportance.  They seem merely to have occurred, and their importance seems to be indistinguishable from the fact that they were recorded.  In fact, it seems that their importance consists in nothing other than their having been recorded.


Janice Gangel-Vasquez:


The burden on deaf children who are learning to read goes well beyond decoding a written system.  Andrews and Mason note that the isolation of most deaf children creates knowledge gaps in their worldview, which interferes with their ability to understand relationships between ideas.  For example, deaf children perceive stories as lists of discrete lexical signs, unlike hearing children who more quickly perceive the structure as a series of connected events.


Jess Row, in Slate:


Another kind of disembodiment takes place in Susan Sontag's "Project for a Trip to China," the first story in I, etcetera.  This story is a classic example of what the novelist and critic Charles Baxter calls an "inventory": a story in the form of a list. In this case, the narrator assembles a jumble of memories, facts, quotations, to-do lists, epigrams, and free associations ("Warlords, landlords; mandarins, concubines.  Old China Hands. Flying Tigers."), all of which present an absorbing, and disturbing, impression of her longing for a country that exists only in those fragmentary scraps of language.


This way of presenting a story by alternate means was very much in vogue in the late '80s and throughout the '90s.  The story could take the form of a sequence of photographs in a wedding album (Heidi Julavits, "Marry the One Who Gets There First"), a personal bibliography (Rick Moody, "Primary Sources"), or a group of reviews (Anthony Giardina, "The Films of Richard Egan").  Implicit in the inventory form is a certain structural irony: The surface text (whether a "catalog," a "project," or a "bibliography") has its own logic, and the story emerges in spite of that logic—through gaps, omissions, parenthetical remarks, footnotes.  It's surely no accident that the inventory-story became popular at a time when we swam in a sea of trivial, distracting, often useless data—stock quotes, "factoids," logos, advertising jingles, spam.  Sontag herself might have pointed out that it bears a certain resemblance to the collage, which became popular in the 1920s and '30s, in an era of anxiety about the mass reproduction of visual images.


An exercise from my own book, The 3 A.M. Epiphany:


Listful.  Write a story that is a list.  A story that relies on the qualities of a list as its form or operating metaphor can be dandy.  A grocery list that includes a wife’s complaints about her husband’s slothful habits is one example.  You might also write about collections that appear on your own or friends’ shelves—books, DVD’s, videos, CD’s, records, trophies, glass figurines—some commentary on the nature of this list is acceptable, but don’t get carried away explaining the contents.  Stick to the notion that this is a list as much as you can—not a list that devolves into a traditional story.  600 words.


A lesson this exercise should impart is that narrative moves forward in many inventive, unexpected, and unusual ways, even without the traditional trappings of story.  A good example of this kind of story is Tim O’Brien’s story “The Things They Carried,” from the book of stories with the same title.  The story details the contents of the backpacks a platoon of soldiers carries off into battle or on their long marches.  The contents dictate the direction of the story, rather than a more traditional approach, which would have been to let the story organize the telling of the contents.  The list does not need to be part of a fictional world.  William Gass’s beautiful book of philosophy and literary criticism, On Being Blue, is not much more than a verbal collection of blue things in the world and things called blue.  Gass’s great story “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” operates similarly as a list of things to hate about a small Indiana town.


A Night to Remember, a book about the doomed ship The Titanic, ends with a simple twenty-page list of the people on board the ship when it sank.  Names in regular font died; names in italics survived—a powerful and moving set of stories keyed to modest typography.  The list also breaks down the survivors and the dead according to class, and in the Third Class section according to nationality, another cruelty that was in keeping with the way the story was reported at the time.


When Maya Lin proposed the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C., her great discovery was the power of a simple list of the 50,000 names of the soldiers who died in that war.  Critics of the memorial, in advance of its construction (Ross Perot spearheaded the movement against the Maya Lin project), wanted a more traditional narrative structure.  Fortunately, Maya Lin’s version of this story—non-narrative and yet densely anecdotal—was enacted.  Stand in front of the wall with other people, those gently rubbing the names of lost family or friends onto tracing paper; or those just quietly crying, and you’ll see what I mean.


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