Whom the gods wish to destroy…
One reward of the teaching profession is to witness the achievement of students and to bask in their success. It’s a reflected glory and not one to take credit for, but nonetheless a source of both pleasure and pride. In the course of a lengthy career as a teacher of prose fiction, I’ve had the great good luck to watch the wheel of fortune turn, then stop at the names of apprentice authors until they become household names. The first was a young man at Bennington College, whose debut novel — Less Than Zero (1985) — made Bret Easton Ellis famous.
My writing workshop at Bennington met once a week, and regular attendance was required. I can remember Bret tumbling out of a limousine the “Today” show commandeered to drive him from a studio taping in New York and stumbling his way — just on time! — into our class in Vermont. Now, a third of a century later, he’s still at work and still controversial, but to this aging teacher he remains a college senior trying on language for size.
Most recently (though I’m now emeritus and she was not my student) the “overnight sensation” is Kristen Roupenian, whose short story in the Dec. 11, 2017, issue of The New Yorker rivaled Ellis’ novel in its cultural éclat. “Cat Person” has made its University of Michigan author both “the talk of the town” and a bankable commodity; she now must navigate the shoals of notoriety and keep on keeping on. As Cyril Connolly, the English essayist, once put it in his Enemies of Promise (1938), “Whom the gods wish to destroy, they first call promising.”
There are many such. Elizabeth Kostova’s first novel, The Historian, (2005) enjoyed a record-setting debut; her book took the number-one position on The New York Times Best Seller list in the first week of publication. Celeste Ng’s novel, Little Fires Everywhere (2017) follows on her best-selling Everything I Never Told You (2014). Both The Historian and Everything I Never Told You took shape as fiction theses in the MFA Workshop at U-M, as did Uwen Akpan’s short story collection, Say You’re One of Them (2008), which won a clutch of awards and was a selection of the Oprah Winfrrey Book Club in 2009.
For years, I taught a class at U-M called “Strategies in Prose.” We read and closely studied the work of master authors — William Faulkner, Ford Madox Ford, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, etc. — with a view to copying their styles. The point was to study their syntax, to learn by example and imitation how to enlarge vocal range. I used to urge my students to “check ego at the door” and to borrow the inflections of others so as to modulate their own and particular voice.
Some 14 years ago, a young woman enrolled in the class. I served then as director of the M.F.A. in creative writing (now known as the Helen Zell Writers’ Program) and knew this particular student had come from the deep South. Upon arriving, she told me in private that she felt homesick for Mississippi and her family in DeLisle. Further, she suffered from migraine headaches and was terrified of snow. Her debut was inauspicious, her first set of exercises argued — or so I feared — a tin ear. She seemed hesitant to speak in class, unhappy and alone. I worried she’d not stay the course, either literally or metaphorically, and told her to take all the time she required in order to write the assignments and not to join the discussions until she had something to say.
This went on for some time. Her imitations of Hemingway, Ford, and Woolf were, to put it bluntly, second rate. The echoes were muffled, the rhetoric inexact. But then we came to William Faulkner, and the student got it; it was almost as though Faulkner too attended class and she were channeling him. Prose that had been static grew of a sudden electric. Everyone in the seminar room shared my opinion and praise. The landscape, the descriptive prose, the dialogue, the characters all echoed the great original, but in an original mode. From that moment on, the student was a full and eager member of our group; her talent fairly blazed. In all my years of teaching I have not, before or since, seen such a transformation. By borrowing the syntax and inflections of a dead southern master, the writer found her voice.
Echoes in prose
That voice belongs to Jesmyn Ward. Her first novel, Where the Line Bleeds (2008) begins with a passage she produced for “Strategies in Prose,” and by now Ms. Ward’s own language has been much copied and honored. Her 2011 novel, Salvage the Bones, won the National Book Award in Fiction. Her memoir, Men We Reaped (2013) about the deaths of her brother and four other young men, demonstrates full authorial assurance. In The Fire This Time, (2016) she contributed an essay to and edited a collection of tributes to James Baldwin, referencing his classic, The Fire Next Time (1963). Ward’s new novel — Sing, Unburied, Sing (2017) — also received the National Book Award in Fiction (the second time in six years!). She has further won the prestigious Strauss Living Award and the MacArthur “genius” grant. Her first prize at U-M was a Hopwood award, and she told me she would use the money to buy a plane ticket, instead of riding the bus home to DeLisle for break.
When Ward returned to Ann Arbor to deliver the 2017 Winter Commencement Address at U-M, I have no doubt she took a plane again. . .
Though there are echoes, still, of Faulkner in Ward’s writing, hers has become a style absorbed and voiced in a new key. If only in this one career — but there are many more — the value in studying the work of other authors has been amply shown. The “enemies of promise” have been shouted down.