I’m writing on the train home from Boston, where I spent three days at Grub Street’s Muse and the Marketplace conference. It was a whirlwind of activities, pitch sessions and manuscript critiques. In addition to meeting a host of promising new writers, I was happy to be able to attend a couple of panel discussions. I sat in on a workshop taught by two of my Boston-based clients, Adam Stumacher (whose short story “Subject, Object ,Verb” was just named a finalist by Narrative Magazine) and Qais Akbar Omar, whose memoir A Fort Of Nine Towers: An Afghan Family Story, was published by FSG. Together, they tackled the important but thorny marriage of “politics and prose,” looking at how writers can effectively grapple with political themes in their work. Adam, who teaches writing at Grub Street, and Qais, who has an MFA from BU but is a storyteller of the Afghan tradition (he’s a definite outlier in the MFA versus NYC debate) came at the subject quite differently, but in complementary ways.
Through readings of their own work, as well as selections from writers like Isaac Babel and Anton Chekhov, Stumacher and Omar reminded the audience that the job of the writer is to render accurately, to tell a story without judgement—and to resist the urge to proselytize. Here’s Chekhov, in a celebrated and often quoted letter: “When I depict horse thieves, you want me to say that stealing horses is wrong. But surely this has long been known without me saying so. Let the jury condemn them, but it is my job simply to show them as they are.”
Because I am interested in projects that engage global issues, I often get query letters for works of fiction that promise to draw attention to the plight of a worthy and under-represented story. Much as I may agree with the writer’s impulse, I am invariably suspicious of the means they employ. Too often the political novel features characters that are simply mouthpieces, sock puppets rehearsing the views of their creators, or straw men waiting to be knocked down. I’m all for the novel (and memoir) of ideas, but only when it doesn’t lean so heavily on a theme that the story is lost. Like most readers, I don’t like being told what to think. Instead, I want to see the situation clearly and formulate my own emotional and intellectual response.
What authors do you think do this particularly well?