Q&A With Lev Grossman
Submissions for our printed anthology, open to MA, MFA, and PhD creative writing students, close on March 31, 2014. We sat down with guest judge and New York Times bestselling author Lev Grossman to discuss his likes and dislikes in fiction and nonfiction. For those of you still polishing your stories, check it out. (You guys, he’s amazing.) Then, submit your story!
Forgive the broad question, but can you describe what makes a piece of fiction successful in your eyes? What elements of craft inform the pieces you enjoy the most?
It is a bit of a broad question. It’s hard to single out one element. Fiction is one of those unforgiving mediums where for it to truly work well all the pieces have to be there: the style, the sense of place, the sense of character, the narrative flow, and whatever else. You don’t get to choose. You have to check all the boxes.
But if I had to pick one element that means the most to me, personally, it’s structure: the flow and the rhythm of the narrative. I want to — have to — feel that the story is a whole, that all the pieces work together, that every piece of the story is in that place for a reason, each one passes you on to the next, until at the end it all narrows to a sharp point — that pierces you, right through.
We primarily publish work from emerging writers. What mistakes do you see new writers make and what would you advise them to avoid?
I’ll mention one mistake that I know well, because I’ve made it myself, plenty of times. “Write what you know” is a cliché because it’s true, but the tricky party of it, the unstated part, is that it can be very difficult to identify exactly what it is that you do know. By default a lot of emerging writers write about themselves, which makes sense. But it takes a long time to know yourself well. Not a lot of people can do it at 23. As an emerging writer one more often has insight into other things and other people.
Do you have a favorite short story or essay? What specifically do you like so much about it?
It’s hard to pick a favorite, comparisons being invidious that way. But I’ll mention Joyce’s “The Dead,” Cheever’s “The Swimmer,” Munro’s “Runaway” (really anything by Munro), Barthelme’s “Paraguay,” Borges’ “The Secret Miracle,” Thurber’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” and Kelly Link’s “The Faery Handbag.” If they have something in common it’s that they’re bursting with intelligence, and they’re by people who not only write brilliantly but who read brilliantly, and who’ve learned from what they read, and who have read everything.
And these are stories that work hard for their readers. They earn their crust. They’re stories written to please the reader, not the writer.
In terms of essays, John Jeremiah Sullivan strikes me as just about the state of the art these days. Check out “Upon This Rock,” his essay about going to a Christian music festival.
When you are reading a piece critically how does it differ — or does it — from when you read a piece purely for the sake of reading? How can writers hope to strike a successful balance?
It doesn’t differ at all. When I’m reading critically I take notes, that’s the difference. I want to read like a reader, not like a critic, whatever that is.
What do you look for in a creative nonfiction piece that you feel most writers fail to achieve? (What makes a creative nonfiction really great as opposed to only okay?)
The first question I ask myself is, would I be embarrassed to say any of these sentences out loud? It’s surprising how little nonfiction gets over that bar.
And after that it just has to read like a story. Even if it’s not a story, even if it’s just a chain of abstract logical reasoning, it needs to read like one, to flow and tense and begin and end like a story. And the writer needs to know how to tell a story, and her or she needs to know what the story they’re telling is about.
What, if anything, are you sick and tired of reading?
Anything that isn’t funny. God knows great writing doesn’t have to be a laugh a minute, but if I’m not laughing at least once every, say, 5,000 words … it’s not a dealbreaker, but there better be a damn good reason for it. Even Kafka laughed when he read his work.