Smolens: Is it possible that there's a change, not in fiction, but in the way fiction is perceived?
Dubus: You mean imaginative writing!
Smolens: There seems to be an impatience on the part of some readers.
Dubus: They're sometimes unwilling to grant the writer a certain freedom. I think they are poor readers. I mean, when I read I like to forget my name. I like to experience being another person-I get to love the character, if the writer is good. I learn something, and then I put the book down and I'm me again.I think there are some people who have strong opinions, and they get offended by what a writer says. They seem dictatorial to me. Sean O'Faolain wrote an introduction to a big anthology of short stories, and in essence, he said, "If you don't like a story, consider it your fault. And read it again." Then he went on to explain eloquently why it may be your fault. For instance, you may be in moral shock: these characters may do something you never considered doing.A while back I read about the actress Debra Winger in a profile Tom Robbins did for Esquire. He put it better than this, but the essential question he asked her was, "You're not really beautiful, so why are you so beautiful on the screen?" A hard question, which he stated politely. And her answer was, "The camera picks up the heart. To go before the camera you must open your heart, and get rid of all prejudices, all preconceptions, and be absolutely open. If you had twin sisters appear before the camera-where one did this and the other didn't-the camera would see it immediately." In effect, that was her response. To me, that's what writing is about, and that's what pure reading is about.
Smolens: We've previously discussed that a central problem in writers' workshops can be criticism that merely tells the writer how to rewrite the story, and that some writers bring a piece to the workshop and request just that: they want their fiction written by committee, so to speak.
Dubus: In my workshops we've discussed this, and there have been times when I've learned that I was not the only one who found it difficult to go back to my own work-that's how important this problem can be.In my workshop we started to have difficulties; I had this explosion, then we took the summer off. Then Chris Tilghman came to the house to discuss how we should be when we came back together. If you go into a room with eight or nine very good professional writers and ask them to read your work, you're going to get eight or nine very good ideas, all of which would work. But it wouldn't be your story; it might be a story you could write, but it might not be the story you should be writing.What we worked out for the new workshop-there were a number of new members who joined at that point-was that a writer reading should say, "I just want to hear about this. I'm concerned about the grandmother's character." Or the writer can say, "Go full bore and tell me whatever you want."Some people enjoy a good debate, of course, but I started wondering: what is the reason for two writers arguing about a third writer's work in the third writer's presence? Too often they were arguing for their own ideas. It was exhilarating, but I'm not sure it's always a good idea.
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If you haven't read Dubus' collection The Times Are Never So Bad, you need to.