Research in fiction writing: Thoughts on Bringing the Devil to His Knees

After reading 10 popular books on creative writing in search of information on the role of research, I’ve now shifted my focus to a set of more “academic” books that are specifically about fiction writing. I say “academic” because, of all of the books on a very long list of recommended creative writing books that I found, these are the ones that are a) about fiction writing specifically and b) owned by the libraries at 20 institutions with highly respected creative writing programs at either the undergraduate or graduate level.

Today, I’m taking a look at Bringing the Devil to His Knees: The Craft of Fiction and the Writing Life, edited by Charles Baxter and Peter Turchi.

This isn’t the first time a work with Charles Baxter’s name on it has shown up on my reading list. The last was Burning Down the House, a collection of essays that he authored which, at times, seemed to challenge the idea that the techniques of Great Writers can or should be imitated. This time, he’s the editor of a collection of essays by a variety of authors, all of whom generally uphold the more common notion that Great Literature is, in fact, an instruction manual for the rest of us.

This book is so focused on analyzing literature that it was easy to forget that it is, in fact, about writing. There were entire essays here that did nothing but summarize Great Works, one after the other, usually in service of some point the author was supposed to be making about technique but which really just felt like…well, summaries of other stories. There was a lot of thinking here about what makes great literature great but little or no advice on how to make your own writing great (or at least publishable).

As I expected when I began this project, this is pretty typical of “academic” writing books. There have been a few surprises along the way (Thrill Me was something of a change of pace, though not as much of one as I thought it was going to be) but for the most part these books, which are the writing books most likely to be found in the collections of academic libraries on campuses with highly respected creative writing programs, are much more about literature than they are about writing. In fact, Bringing the Devil to His Knees is exactly the kind of book I would have expected to encounter as a required reading for one of the courses I took as an English major.

At least now that I’m learning more about creative writing pedagogy, such as it is, I’m starting to understand why academic writing books choose to eschew the “how-to” aspects of writing in favor of a focus on analyzing literature. I just finished re-reading The Elephants Teach by D.G. Myers, which lays out the history of creative writing programs in universities in the United States. According to Myers, a key factor in the development of creative writing programs was a shift in thinking about literature itself. Before, the only literature that college students studied was from Greek and Latin poets—the classics, some of which had been produced thousands of years earlier. Literature was treated as a static object from the past. It was only when people started thinking of literature as ongoing that things changed. Now people could study literature in order to understand what made it work so that they could produce new literature.

In other words, as Myers puts it, creative writing was about studying literature from the inside. This is still very much the case in undergraduate creative writing programs. As an undergraduate creative writing student, you’re learning to read like a writer. If you have enough talent (or money…or both) to get to the graduate level, then that’s where you start actually learning to become a writer. Sort of.

Which is to say, the how-to of creative writing never really seems to be part of the pedagogical conversation, except through the back door of analyzing Great Literature. Myers actually discusses the rise of “how-to” writing textbooks, which in the early days were authored almost exclusively by women. Because of this, Myers says that they were (and apparently still are) largely viewed as “women’s books.” Which kind of helps to explain why they’re often treated as “lesser” than books like Bringing the Devil to His Knees.

You might think that because creative writing pedagogy places so much emphasis on reading like a writer that this would make conversations about research impossible. Certainly the topic doesn’t come up much in books like Bringing the Devil (though it has appeared on other books in this list). Research is more of a how-to and therefore not a good fit for a literature-focused text. But I wonder if it’s possible to analyze Great Literature through the lens of its use of research. I think it must be. I mean, research in fiction is meant to be largely invisible—at least when it’s done well—but once you start looking for it, it’s possible to find evidence of research all over almost any piece of fiction that you read. If this is the case, it must be possible to show how even a Great Writer uses research in their work and maybe even point to some techniques they use to integrate it into the fabric of their stories.

I realize I’ve probably said more here about The Elephants Teach than I have about Bringing the Devil and that when I have talked about Bringing the Devil, I’ve talked more about what it isn’t than I have about what it is. Like I said, it’s definitely the type of book that seems like a comfortable fit as an assigned reading in a creative writing program while not necessarily being the type of thing you would pull off a bookstore shelf if you were an aspiring writer interested in learning how to write. The message here is the same in most of the other books I’ve read so far, which is that we should all aspire to produce Great Literature but only Great Writers produce Great Literature and you are probably not a Great Writer.

Better understanding why books like these have a focus on literature has eased some of the frustration I feel about them. That said, I wish if these books were going to talk so much about literature that their repertoires were a little more varied. Spotting the references to Flanery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” or Virginia Woolf or Chekhov or Hemingway has become like a drinking game. Sometimes it feels like we haven’t gotten that far from treating literature as a static thing from ancient times.  

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