Influences - TC Boyle

There are those authors whose works initially set us on our path to become writers ourselves. These are often the authors we read when we are kids or teens, the authors whose works first haunt us and spur us to take on this writing life.

Then there is the second category of author influences, the established writers we encounter after we’ve already begun our writing careers. They are the unexpected influence, the ones we didn’t see coming, whose literary work crashes headlong into your intended artistic path and forever alters our course, making us aware that life is not a path through the forest but a voyage upon an uncharted sea.

TC Boyle is that author for me.

I was in my mid-twenties, already committed to becoming—to being!—a writer, and I was reading through the Best American Short Stories of 1997, a habit I had picked up during my writer workshops. The BASS collections are often staid and stuffy, more a reflection of the American literati perpetuating its tastes than of truly publishing the best short fiction of that year.

Two guest editors in the 1990s gleefully twisted the typical BASS modus operandi: Louise Erdritch and E. Annie Proulx (now just Annie Proulx). These collections are stellar and inspiring—qualities that BASS often fails to summon—and as a fan of Proulx’s, I found her take on that year’s best fiction startling.

TC Boyle (then writing as T. Coraghessan Boyle) originally published his story ‘Killing Babies’ in the New Yorker, and its topic is what you would guess from the title. What was foreign/shocking/enlivening was the outcome – the antagonistic Pro-Life protestor getting his in such a blatant and violent way. The shock I felt—I think I said aloud, ‘You can’t do that’—galled me and pissed me off, and yet, I was instantly won over. The story was both overtly political and shamelessly vengeful, but above all, it was a page-turner. Boyle can turn a literary phrase while engaging and entertaining the reader, sneaking in the art while distracted you with the story. 

Thanks to a coworker, who was already enamored of Boyle’s work, I started reading everything he'd written. His novel World’s End is still probably my favorite (always dance with the one that brung ya, right?) But I love his short story collections, and the novels Riven Rock and A Friend of the Earth are incredible examples of enticing narrative stamina.

His unabashedly Baby Boomer-focused fiction taught me how to structure a novel, how to delve into the minds of my characters, how to spice tragedy with humor. How to embrace my own flawed, contradictory humanity, even. My fiction would have continued to imitate that staid and stuffy BASS tone and timbre if not for Boyle’s intervention.

I’ve written elsewhere in this blog about the unfortunate influences that the Iowa Workshop and Raymond Carver have had on the pedagogy surrounding the teaching of fiction. I’ve been unfair. As Carol Sklenicka’s fantastic biography of Carver reveals, Carver was an instructor at the Iowa Workshop when both Boyle and another, very different writer Mark Helprin, were in attendance. Perhaps the Iowa Workshop has always been more diverse than I’ve given it credit for.

Boyle’s career and output have done to the MFA v. NYC debate what Alexander the Great's sword did to the Gordian Knot. 

MFA vs NYC vs the Writer: How Audience Impacts the Debate

The state of American fiction is dire, and depending on your loyalties, either MFA programs or the NYC publishing machine are to blame.

I passed this link to Sonia Saraiya’s excellent review of MFA vs. NYC from the AV Club website around my Twitter feed earlier in the week.

Saraiya’s overriding thesis, that the essay collection MFA vs. NYC misses an opportunity to perform a critical assessment about the diminishing quality of American fiction, is on the mark. Although MFA programs have diversified in the years since I applied and was rejected in the 1990s, those programs still by and large enforce a standard of literature that fails with a broader, non-Academic audience. More often than not MFA writers are writing to and for other MFA writers and English Department professors, and although MFA programs are as popular as ever—everyone wants to be a writer, right?—the cloistered description of how the University defines a writer both limits and diminishes that writer’s work.

As Saraiya points out, many of the ‘great’ American novels that shaped us and set us on this writer’s road wouldn’t make it through an MFA program’s workshop. (Not to mention that most of us became writers because we fell in love with a piece of genre fiction.)

The NYC side—the publish for profit and sometimes quality side—is more difficult to dissect only because the audience is potentially broader and a paying audience trumps all. No one knows what makes a best seller (or even a profitable novel) just as no one knows what will endure as an American classic. For every known quantity (a Stephen King release, say) there is always that breakout book that comes from nowhere and resets expectations and then generates dozens of imitators for ever-diminishing returns. The economics obviously, and more frequently, work in the reverse – a poor performing book may be the last book an author is asked to write for a publisher.

On the NYC side of the equation, we can’t fall back on the protection that we might have in academic circles that while a work may be a commercial failure, based on its literary merits, it may also be a success.

The two camps aren’t even as clearly defined as that. The MFA side does not always equal quality literature over market value, and NYC side does not always forsake quality for sales. There are even those rare instances when an MFA grad manages to succeed in the NYC world – effectively leveraging literary cachet and sales.

My question is: does the rise of eBooks, self publishing and Amazon change the MFA vs. NYC dynamic? Has an effective third way been introduced to the eco-system that gives prospective authors a legitimate means to write, to publish, and to make a living doing so?

I hate to cheat my answer, but I don’t know. I’m as excited as anyone about the prospect of self-publishing my novel should I fail to interest a literary agent. Or maybe I’ll skip the agent-querying altogether. Self-publishing has built up its own industry around itself, and it’s now a viable way for me to get my work out there.

The self-publishing industry (for lack of a better term) and Twitter have provided me with a community of fellow writers with whom I can share my struggles and my meager triumphs. That’s certainly valuable—as valuable as having access to writers with whom I can workshop—but there is a limiting nature, as well, because most of my Tweets and blog posts are read by other writers. As much as I love my fellow wordsmiths, like them, I wish to reach as vast an audience as possible, not just those within my insular artist community.

And maybe this debate of MFA vs. NYC vs. Writer is as simple as answering that question: who is your audience? When you’re slaving over your manuscript, who do you envision reading your words?

Perhaps if we writers are able to effectively define our audience, the debate resolves itself, and we write to the folks who will benefit most from our labors.