The Disease of Competence

by Alex Keegan
The Internet Writing Journal, April 2006
Competence. I am choking to death on competence. I am being tortured by ordinariness, battered into submission by beige words on fawn pages, by magnolia writing. One sound fits all.

As I dip into the English literary journals, and those American ones I can easily access, the short-story seems to come to me now, as a painful, plain, dull vanilla. I see, eat, feel, and read the blind, bland and automatic, the five-thousand-word sound-byte, the "Yeah?" stories, the so-fracking-what stories, the smooth and empty.

I received a journal not so long ago and the four prize-winning stories were so similar that I cut and pasted the four opening paragraphs and posted it to my writing group as a single opening. The group thought the opening "quirky" but not one group member recognized that here there were four separate writers. About two years ago, I took the two opening paragraphs from an edition of a well-known literary magazine and asked a group of writers to decide how many different authors there were here. Many thought two, some thought three, one thought four. There were eleven. Eleven. And every author either had an MFA or taught on a Creative Writing MFA.

About six or seven years ago, we were moving house as my wife had a new job. I had been writing full-time for four years and had managed to sell five crime novels, but I'd moved into serious short fiction. I wanted to change direction so much, I thought a year on a creative writing masters might help. As much as anything, I wanted a wall between my old writing identity and my new one.

I don't want to talk much about the MA itself (but it was disappointing and I mentioned the blanding, do-it-the-corporate-way atmosphere in my article "The Novice Screenwriter Refuses to Conform") but I do want to mention my two projects.

The academic coursework was comfortable but the bulk of the final grade was based on Projects A and Project B.

Project A was the aspiring writer's first attempt at a novel, a screenplay, or a set of stories. The idea was simple. Submit A and then respond to the feedback with Project B which was worth a full 50% of the course.

I was writing, and growing. I knew just how many secrets my published writing glided over and I decided to write a piece where I derided my own stories, attacked the author for his cowardice. What was there on the page was passion, language, heat, an attempt to access the truth.

The feedback was a near-yawn. Why was I bothering with this post-modern self-analysis? B.

I had been disappointed by the tutors. I had realized that standing up for principles could mean failure. So for my final project, I simply removed all the fresh, passionate, profane, self-investigative work, and trotted out a nice easy set of short-stories.

The result? I graduated with a distinction!

I cannot stress enough how easy it is to publish ordinary work and how much harder it is to get into print with anything that tries to reach a little further. My experience on the Bath University Creative Writing MA was a perfect example. Give them easy and the applause will come.

But to what depths are we slowly but surely spiraling down? Where do the next set of editors come from if not the current MFA and MA courses? We must surely be creating a world where the bland lead the bland.

In an essay Francine du Plessix Gray wrote: "I wish to state my great unease toward the very nature of such classes… too many students can glibly discuss Mimetic Strategy of Narrative Dislocation but are tone-deaf to the euphonies of prose and are incapable of lucidly communicating a smell or a texture."

Later she wrote of her fear that university writing programs might be "shooting out, with the speed of tennis-ball machines, a new breed of fiction-scribblers who are groveling for the glitz of being labeled creative writers."

"These misguided souls might merely be mastering the technical tricks of the narrative trade and barking them out like contestants at a dog show, with an eye to marketability."

All the above is true, but add into the mix the following experience and the revelations of two editors. I have twice been rejected by one magazine which paid &5 per thousand words only to then place the story for &1,000 in a prestigious competition. In both cases the rejecting editor mentioned that she loved the stories but that the readership "would not wear it".

Let's not mince words here. This editor openly admits to using inferior material because that's what the readers want! We have discussed this many times. The editor freely admits that this is a sad fact of life. If she goes for anything more serious, she loses subscribers. The result is that the best stories in the magazines are pseudo-literary, always comfortable and "easy reads". They slide down with barely a thought, and taste sweet for seconds. Then they are forgotten.

Consider this, reader. You pick up a literary journal. Do you simply read it, that is from start to finish, or do you own it and maybe skim, or glance at the beginnings of each story in the hope that something will bite you? If you went to your bookshelf now and counted how many stories you have glanced at, how many you have actually read would you, like me, discover you read less than ten per cent, and that many of those are disappointing? How often are we hit in the gut by writing these days?

My second editor ran a small literary magazine for a few years and has recently had to close the print version and fall back on web-publication. Why?

Her answer confirms the first editor's knowledge of the market. Each time this editor published anything more serious, she lost subscribers and in the end the losses became too much.

Is this merely sad, or is there something a little more worrying underfoot? If an aspiring writer today goes to many of the little British magazines, he or she will not find stories with meat, will not find Carver or Englander. If Vladimir Nabokov wanted to place his stories in the British Small press he would fail.

But does this matter? Well, it matters if, when the writer is starting out, he is led to believe that what publishes is this thin, far-too-easy, vanilla-languaged, forgettable stuff. It matters if nowhere there is a Nabokov, or Brodkey or Marquez.

I believe we have developed the literary equivalent of Chick-lit. Let's call it Lit-Lit. It's a lightish general fiction with the faint whiff of better writing. It's easy to absorb, often solid, and often contains one flourish, often a good opener, or a neat closing paragraph.

I see a mechanic at work, not an artist. I see an MFA graduate with a set design, a reasonable premise, a text with the errors flattened away, then, after some blue-pencil remarks from a tutor (who graduated himself just ten-fifteen years earlier), has managed to bolt on a few sparklers, enough for publication. The circle is not only complete, the walls are built a brick higher, and just a little thicker. And the new writer sees what the new writer must do to be published.

I open the latest copy of Best American Short Stories (BASS) and read the first work. Does it move me? Does it shake me? Does it knock me off my feet? Does it make me care? Do I read the story, ache, feel profundity or wonder a little deeper about life?

No. And not only "No" but even "Not at all!"

This must worry me. It should worry us. Though I recognize, of course that it would be easy to dismiss the flaws as mine as a reader rather than say the story is bland, goes nowhere in particular, has no language of extra significance, no deep or rare emotion. It's "just another one" just another BASS story.

I never miss a BASS. I want to know what is considered the pinnacle of US short-story writing in the year. And I have read, on occasion, superb works. But it's the general sense of the humdrum, the forgettable, the prose equivalent of the very, very minor poets who reach these "heights".

Mary Yakuri Waters' story "Rationing" was published by the Missouri Review, then selected by Katrina Kenison, then further, it was picked out by Walter Mosely

When Kate Kenison mentions the story in her prologue, note the dizzy excitement: "in 'Rationing' a young Japanese man's deeply-felt admiration for his self-sufficient father inhibits him from ever expressing his true feelings, until it's too late."

What strikes me here is the flatness, the "Yeah, right!" and when I come to the story I am again struck by the ordinary, the flat, the near-essay feel of steady, dull prose. It is certainly tidy and it's certainly error-free, but where in the piece is any sense of newness of a freshness or true insight?

I read the story of Saburo and his father. I read it again. I read it a third time, and even on the fourth read, desperately searching for a reason it is one of the best twenty stories published in 2002, I cannot find one.

When I teach the short-story, if a student rates language above par I ask them to quote that language to excerpt the prose and discuss where the piece works at a higher level, why they enjoyed it, or were moved. Do I go through this story and find myself underlining words? Are there patches where the English rises above the ordinary, even as far as "nice"? Not to me. It seems to read like a slow-moving, slightly stodgy, essay, nothing so much wrong, as simply lacking anything extra.

There is no va-va-va-voom. It's safe. It's boring. The whole piece reads like the story we have in our collection when the publisher needs just one more. Sorry, but if there is greatness here, I cannot see it. It's another example of so-so, me-too, do-I-really-care? writing.

I never read the author's comments on a story until I am almost done with it. When I read Waters' comments I was not surprised to see it was a story out-of-the-drawer. That's exactly how it feels, a story which never really worked and still doesn't work. Sure, it's solid, sure it's publishable but isn't there supposed to be something more? Are we not meant to feel joy, or shock, or be so immersed in a wonderful vision or beautiful prose that we are transported? Are we not supposed to "carry" a good story with us for a long time?

Half-way through the story, there is a paragraph where Saburo has a recurring dream where he thinks he's racing in the 800 when in fact it's a 400. I wrote in the margin, "Meaning?"

But of course, the story had 800 metre racing highlighted earlier, then at the end we get the final metaphor. Saburo's clichéd chest pain as his father dies "reminded him of track days: anguish escalating unbearably in oxygen-deprived lungs, the blind rush down the home stretch on legs that were too slow." My first thoughts were, "The tutor recommended a solid threaded metaphor. Is this an MFA graduate?"

The story is one of the best twenty in the whole of the US? Really?

The story is competent, but competence is a disease. I see ordinariness exalted, I see reader-votes for dross, I see the brave editors going out of business and other editors thriving by giving writer-readers more of those stories just one per cent better than the rest, the comfortable, the solid, the unmoving.

When Flannery O'Connor said, "Any idiot with a nickel's worth of talent can emerge from a writing class able to write a competent story. In fact so many people can now write competent stories that the short story medium is dying of competence." she may have been slightly defeatist, but then she was only looking from the angle of the creative writing courses at university.

If we now add in the fact that many MFA graduates are published, that MFA graduates become editors, become teachers on further MFA courses, that editors who go for broke often go broke, it's a deeply sick, sad spiral of false fulfillment.

Francine du Plessix Gray argued that we must keep our sentences erotic, our sentences euphonic, full of tonality and rhythm and avoiding all those tired phrases we see too often. She wrote how our stories must open in a way that promised to seduce, that intrigued, whispered like a lover. She said we should strive for muscle, for power, to make things throb, and she said we must rebel against the tyranny of the genre. She was right, she is right, but my fear is that "the genre" is also now "the market" and the genre is also the supply-line, and the judges are steeped in the genre, and the whole is one sorry, bland, self-perpetuating, mutual admiration fest.

Alex Keegan British Crime and Literary Fiction Author Alex Keegan is publisher and editor of the British literary magazine, Seventh Quark. He is creator of the five Caz Flood novels: Cuckoo (Headline Books, St. Martin's Press), Vulture, Kingfisher, Razorbill (Headline Books) and A Wild Justice (Piatkus Books) which all feature feisty female private investigator Catherine "Caz" Flood. Cuckoo was published in the U.S. by St Martin's Press, and was nominated for an Anthony Award as best first novel.

His prize-winning short stories have been featured in numerous publications including Mystery and Manners, BBC Radio 4, Blue Moon Review, Southern Ocean Review, and The Atlantic. He is a Contributing Editor for The Internet Writing Journal. His blog can be found here.

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