Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

30 Dec 2011

(Short Story) A Writing Lesson by: Mary Gordon

(Reaction) Fictional Tutelage by: Antonio Conejos

Gordon's A Writing Lesson is a story about narratives, a story whose own narrative is composed of multiple, hypothetical narratives. There are central characters, a man and his wife as well as a girl who serves to drive a wedge between the couple. These characters in turn rise and fall depending on which mode of fiction (a fairy tale or a realistic story) the narrator places them in.

The thing is, the Writing Lesson reads more like what a story should be (in the perfect, Platonic sense, a story in the realm of Eidos) rather than how a story breathes in real life. It describes the characteristics of a story and in turn becomes a story (of a sort) of its own.

According to the Writing Lesson, a story is plotted from the beginning, with a definite view point made clear to the reader. You must be sure that the reader can only interpret the story as you would have it interpreted.

The Lesson also takes pains to distinguish the mode of a fairy tale from that of a realistic story. This is readily apparent in the discussion on what can, and what cannot, happen to the characters in these various modes. For instance, it is but natural that in a fairy tale the husband and girl become lost in the woods together but this image of a couple in the woods may be comic or prurient for a realistic story.

There is also always conflict, a problem with the narrative, one central event around which the story centers, around which it fans, like a peacock's tail. You should be searching your narrative for a central event, a significant event. Note that the problem of your narrative is brought up in at least 3 of the story's 18 paragraphs.

Thus far the Lesson had admonished basic elements of a short story, characters, plotting, problems and resolution. Yet ironically even though the Writing Lesson has none of these elements (rather it merely has descriptions of these elements), it is categorized as a short story.

As such The Writing Lesson can be seen to question the very notions of a short story which it ostensibly supports. This is metafiction at its trickiest, when a piece looks at fiction and in turn becomes fiction itself. The chief question of this short story is whether it dwells more on its intrinsic irony or on the earnestness of its purported lesson.


I'm not really a fan of metafiction, the whole thing just seems deliberately complicated for me. There are some examples of this type of fiction which are entertaining, A French Lieutenant's Woman comes to mind. A Writing Lesson though simply has too much meta and not enough fiction for me.

Honestly I couldn't tell where the Writing Lesson was going; if it is indeed a primer on how to write or rather an ironic demonstration that a story need not have any of the traditional elements associated with a story.

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