I must start with, what's up with the title?
The title of the book is also the title of one of the essays which is about writing sentences, especially paying attention to verbs.
I found a while ago that if I could circle all the instances of the verb to be on a page of student writing and connect them up in a spider diagram (copula spiders), then I could teach the student something concrete about improving the prose by showing him how to rewrite some of those sentences using active, interesting verbs.
I quote from some of letters to students (acerbic, comic). I think I actually manage to make writing sentences sound exciting.
Can you please provide a summary of the book's content?
The book is a sequence of essays beginning with two pieces on novel and short story structure. These are followed by a couple of essays on sentences that gradually lead to larger issues of form (its complexity, formality, artificiality).
Then I segue into a series of essays that are meant to show readers how to read good writers for technique and structure. "How to Read a Mark Anthony Jarman Short Story" or "The Mind of Alice Munro." Also novels by Leon Rooke, Thomas Bernhard, Cees Nooteboom, Juan Rulfo, and more.
I close with a couple of essays about novels in a larger, more philosophical context. One explores the relationship between novels and history and truth, the other talks about endings and what I call the comforting lie of art (which the best writers try to reveal).
The second essay in the book is called "How to Write a Short Story: Notes on Structure and an Exercise." Besides discussing plot, image patterning, thematic passages and time control, I also give an exercise that offers a stripped-down short story paradigm. It often seems to help student writers get their bearings inside the mysteries of the craft.
Does the book outline your personal approach to reading, re-reading, or whatever we now call the act of criticism or engagement with literary production?
On a certain level this book is about the act of reading. Really what I am pushing is a critical aesthetic that is a bit like New Criticism and a bit like Formalist criticism but to my mind as a writer just seems reasonable and immeasurably expands comprehension. You read the book or story and pay some attention to how it's put together and, beyond the illusion of story, you suddenly engage with the text on a whole other, rather exciting, level of rhythm and meaning. You begin to SEE connections that hitherto you vaguely passed over supplying your own dreamy connotations (as you're taught to do in high school). We're at a moment in our culture when differences in the ability to read and comprehend a text are crucial.
And I can't remember the moment when I invented the phrase copula spiders, only vaguely remember circling over and over again all the to be verbs and then NOTICING that I could really make a diagram out of this and the diagram could look like a spider (with far more legs than it should have). The real issue, the shocking point, is that when you teach writing you are basically teaching the same student over and over again. It doesn't matter whether the student is writing nonfiction or fiction or that the student thinks the burning piece of paper in your hand is the next War and Peace because he has put his heart into it and it comes out of his own original personal thoughts and is DIFFERENT (he believes) from anything ever written before (or in the future). The shocking thing is the uniformity of mediocrity. The shocking thing is that intelligent adults can't think of another verb to use (actually most students jog along with a verb repertoire of about five: to be, to look, to sit, to stand, to see--absolutely the most popular verb choices).
The crucial connector here is to realize that part of the reason proto-writers don't notice they are doing this is because they don't know how to read. Eighty percent of what I do every semester is teach students how to read like writers, that is, with attention to structure and the intensities of well-written prose. So the two aspects of my book are necessarily joined: you can't teach people to write simply by telling them what they are doing wrong; you have to show them where it is done right, that is, you have to show them how to read.
What have you been up to recently? What are some short stories (either singles or collections) that you've particularly enjoyed recently?
Last week I was in New York at the Center for Fiction to give a reading and a craft class. The craft class was on novel writing, based on my essay "How to Write a Novel" in Attack of the Copula Spiders. It's on Youtube.
Also at the Center for Fiction, I gave a little 5-minute reading, micro-stories. That's on Youtube as well.
Right now I am working mostly on a novel. The stories I am reading are mostly re-readings. Isaac Babel, Mark Anthony Jarman, Chekhov (I just went through "The Duel").
See also Numéro Cinq.