The Emperor’s New Prose

Commercially Readable Angst without Plot

by Nalini Haynes

It’s no secret that I’m studying writing at a tertiary educational institution. What seems to be a secret is how to write. These secrets are bestowed upon the favored few if they linger within the influence of enlightened ones, writing in an acceptable genre—or should I say ‘in THE acceptable genre’?

I didn’t understand the unwritten rules of this Learned Temple. I chose courses that run at times to suit my preferences, allowing me to arrive home before 10 pm. Such erratic motivation for class selection has proven a disadvantage as I flit from master to master—would you believe from doctor to doctor?—with insufficient time for their wisdom to be impressed upon my plebian soul.

(Do plebians have souls?)

The one consistent strain in music produced by competing orchestras, the one consistent theme wending its way from these conductors’ batons, is that Literature reigns supreme. Long live Literature.

Last semester a student workshopped the opening portion of a mutant story (think X-men); it had character and drama. The story sparkled with comedic elements as is appropriate for that genre. I voiced my approval.

The teacher said the comedic elements must be excised; you can’t have comedy in a moment of tension, she declared.

I groaned inwardly, thinking she was reducing a potential Avengers to a Daredevil or Electra.

A teacher declared ‘I’m teaching you commercial writing’ but her version of ‘commercial’ is—different. Two years ago the CEOs of Scribe Publishing, Text Publishing and Writers Victoria spoke on a panel at the Melbourne Writers Festival, agreeing that for a Literature novel to sell 1,000 copies in Australia is an exemplary success, requiring reprints.  My teacher declared 6,000 sales creates a bestseller. Genre—as in, science fiction and fantasy—does not encroach upon her vision of commercial writing.

A former student won the Victorian Premier’s Unpublished Manuscript Award. His book went on to become an international success. However, this teacher wrinkles her nose, grimacing as if biting on a lemon when she talks about his work. ‘Writers don’t like his work,’ she explains. ‘There weren’t better manuscripts that could have won the award?’ she asks.

Another student cited an interview where that former student said he found it difficult to return to study.

‘I’m not surprised,’ the teacher said. ‘There were better students in the class.’ Apparently his grades weren’t good.

I said, ‘I heard he was really good at marketing his book.’

‘Him? No,’ said the teacher.

During another class the teacher drew a Bell-shaped curve on the whiteboard to indicate intelligence of readers. She explained she’s trying to teach us to write for a commercial market so we should not aim at the top 5%. She said we should aim for the top 30% or so, developing them as a loyal readership, training them to then follow us to the top 5%.

The bulk of readers in the ‘average’ 20% bracket were beneath mention. Apparently catering to the ‘average’ reader is not commercial writing.

Her advice regarding fantasy is—interesting. She told one student: ‘You can’t have cypress trees in fantasy.’

On an assessment piece the teacher wrote that my 600 words did not have any fantasy themes. At my next workshop opportunity I cited three internationally-renown authors to justify urban fantasy as a genre. She said she hadn’t heard of urban fantasy and yet she’s teaching students how to write genre fiction.

I’ve been slogging through snow trying to translate what this teacher says into what she really means. I feel as though she’s wrapping chains around me, weighting my hands with impossible tasks. My stomach roils with nausea while my grades plummet.

I am under no illusions that my writing needs improvement. However, with new understanding of this teacher’s requirements for a decent grade, I imagine Scott Westerfeld workshopping his novel Afterworlds in this class. ‘At times your voice lacks sophistication,’ my teacher would say. ‘When you change point of view character, you must always begin with interiority. None of this setting a scene,’ she would say, poking at the offending pages. ‘Nor this dialogue,’ she would add, shuddering, one hand clenched against her heart. Her voice drips Yiddish Mother Disapproving of Her Progeny. Although she is neither Yiddish nor from Queens, her accent and use of language evoke stereotypes from The Nanny. ‘Evoke interiority by metaphor or sensory information not by thoughts and feelings,’ she would say, flipping pages of Westerfeld’s novel. ‘If you’re going to write fantasy you need to read Jorge Luis Borges “The Circular Library”. He is a great writer. You can learn how it’s done.’

My teacher instructed me to emulate Sonya Hartnett’s Of a Boy. There are aspects of that novel I admire but overall I dislike the story. It reads like a suburban horror although it’s a tragedy. Never expressing thought or feeling, the boy is a passive victim while accumulating psychic injuries. The swimming pool is a monster lying in wait, a demon luring lovelorn innocents to a watery grave.

I don’t want to write those kinds of stories. I don’t want to read those kinds of stories. Vilette, Wuthering Heights, Larks Rise to Candleford, Sons and Lovers—these are stories I read as a young adult to increase my knowledge of Literature. I loathed them all.

Refuse washes ashore at a river bend. While I shiver in the shallows my feet sink into a bog of excrement and existential angst. I fill my pan and wade into the flow, allowing water to wash away the dross in hopes of finding flecks of gold. Fear holds me in its icy grip: can my feeble eyes distinguish between refuse and refuse-caked gold? How can I learn to write and not succumb to the Emperor’s New Prose?