I just finished The Possessed by the estimable Elif Batuman. I really like it, especially what she says about craft:
I realized that I would greatly prefer to think of literature as a profession, an art, a science, or pretty much anything else, rather than a craft. What did craft ever try to say about the world, the human condition, or the search for meaning?
This reminds me of Guernica’s interview with Etgar Keret, a writer I really admire from hearing him on radio programs. Have I actually read his work? Er, not yet – I certainly intend to, of course – but you’re missing the point here, which is this:
In America, where writers are preoccupied with the craft of writing, I always try to introduce this concept of the badly written good story. Turning the hierarchy around and putting passion on top and not craft, because when you just focus on craft, you can write something that is very sterile. It looks beautiful, but soulless. So I warn them that, often in writing programs, articulation and clarity are more important than what you actually say. Sometimes you have, like, New Yorker stories—there’s a couple, they’re on a cruise, he’s becoming senile, he doesn’t want to acknowledge it, when the woman mentions it to him, he becomes really angry, but in the end he admits it and they sit on the deck, she closes her eyes. And you say, “It’s so well-written, but who [cares]?” For certain, the guy who wrote it doesn’t [care]. It’s not something that has to do with his life; it’s just something well-written and illuminating, and writing is not about that. The best stories you usually hear are stories that people feel some type of urgency about.*
Which in turn reminds me of going to see Richard Price do a reading many years ago. He said something to this effect: “You don’t write to write, you write because you’ve got a story you’re dying to tell.”
*Coincidentally, if I may talk shop for a moment, creating a sense of urgency is a desired practice in classroom teaching. If you’ve ever sat through a boring class, you may have an inkling as to why.