Friday, February 27, 2015

Writing 501: Too Many Epiphanies


The other day, I was chatting with a young writer who has her first novel coming out soon, and she said, "I was hoping you could tell me how to be a better writer."

"Yeah," I said, "I'm looking for that too."

Thinking back on this exchange, it occurred to me that almost all writing advice is written for as-yet-unpublished writers -- Writing 101, as it were.  But the rest of us could use a little help now and then too.  So I'm starting an occasional series, nothing elaborate, of Writing 501 advice.

Today's nugget comes from Charles Baxter, via an article by Alison Lurie in the New York Review of Books.  Here's Lurie's take on Baxter's take on the proliferation of epiphanies:

In a chapter called “Against Epiphanies,” for instance, Baxter discusses what a student I used to know called “stupid little realization stories.” Once upon a time, he says, as in Joyce’s “Araby,” the sudden rush of knowledge and/or self-knowledge was new, surprising, and effective. Now, however, “Everyone is having insights…. Everywhere there is a glut of epiphanies…. But…there is a smell about them of recently molded plastic.” One problem is that these insights tend to “depend on an assumption that the surface is false.” There is also often an implication that characters in a story who do not have these insights are morally or intellectually inferior. “Now that the production of epiphanies has become a business, the unenlightened are treated with sad pity, and with the little grace notes of contempt.”
As I read this, an authentic story climaxing with an epiphany is still possible.  But the epiphany must be real, hard-won.  Too often, the epiphany is employed as a device, slapped onto the end of the story as a way of getting the writer out of it, or of giving a sugar-surge of energy to a plot that simply hasn't earned it.

In any case, it's well worth thinking about.  Correctly applied, Baxter's observation will have the salubrious result of making your fiction significantly more difficult to write.  Which is to be desired, yes?

The NYRB article is behind a paywall.  But you can read the Boston Globe review of Baxter's new collection of short fiction here.

Above:  Charles Baxter himself, from the Boston Globe review.  Joyce's "Araby," incidentally, is a terrific story.  Any writer who hasn't read Dubliners yet really should.



Jill Roberts said...

Ohmigod, I totally get this now!

HANNAH'S DAD said...

I've always thought that while writers should be free to write stories where the main character is also a writer (even a sensitive troubled writer), but that for each such story they should be required to sacrifice one finger joint, Yakuza style in surety.

Perhaps a similar rule could be applied to epiphanies?