Wednesday, September 7, 2011
Dick Davidson Interviews Fred Shafer, Literary Editor & Writing Teacher
1. Q. I have heard that you prefer a literary writing style. Is this correct, and if so, how do you define literary?
A. The word “literary” may seem to imply some kind of hierarchy in fiction writing, and I don’t feel comfortable with that idea. But if the words “narrative” or “descriptive” were substituted for “literary,” then I’d say that I enjoy all kinds of narrative and descriptive writing, no matter the genre or audience. In terms of voice or style, it’s always interesting to see and feel the things that good works of fiction share in common, from the cadences of sentences, to the textures of details, and the sounds of words.
2. Q. You have pointed out that all writers can learn something from studying examples of writing for children. Would you comment on this?
A. There are many things that all writers can learn from books written for children, because of the close contact those books share with fables, fairy tales, and stories told to listeners. Too often, writers for adult audiences lose track of the basic spirit and force of storytelling. By reading stories for children, they can renew their awareness of the rhythms of plot and the power and beauty of narrative sentences.
3. Q. You have spent more time in your career teaching others to write well than you have spent on your own writing. Would you comment on the relative values you place on writing and teaching?
A. As a teacher and an editor, I’ve always felt a tremendous sense of responsibility to the people who come to me, and I enjoy watching writers develop and grow. It’s true that I usually give priority to my students’ work over my own, but I feel, at the same time, that I’m learning and growing and that my classes and workshops are, by implication, about my own writing, when there is time for it.
4. Q. In today’s literary climate and marketplace what kind of future do you see for short story writers?
A. Thanks to the Internet, the prospects for short story writers are excellent. When the general-circulation magazines, with just a few exceptions, stopped carrying short fiction several years ago, the market for stories remained strong in magazines and journals published by universities, art organizations, and independent editors. Many of those journals still appear in print, but some of them have shifted to on-line publishing and new journals show up frequently on Internet. Last year, an author I know conducted a study of publishing opportunities available for storywriters both in print and on line and found more than 500 outlets.
5. Q. Genre writing emerged because bookstore displays and sales were made easier by having well-known categories of subject matter. With the increase of book (and eBook) sales online, will the importance of genre writing change? Do you anticipate new genres or mixtures of genres?
A. I suspect that the practice of categorizing genres is being sustained in on-line publishing, especially by systems that steer readers to books similar to those they have already purchased. But I hope that writers will continue to experiment with genre mixing, because as a reader I like books that introduce new combinations of established forms and defy categorization. On the Internet, where the planning of shelf space won’t be an issue, titles can always be listed under more than one heading, and it should be possible to create new headings, when they are needed.
6. Q. Some novels use much more narrative than dialog, while others are closer to plays in using mostly dialog with just enough narrative to set and describe the scene and accomplish transitions. Is the latter approach due to our increased dependence on visual forms of entertainment? Are different balances between narrative and dialog better suited to certain types of written works?
A. The reliance by fiction writers on dialogue, compact scenes, and quick transitions can be traced all the way back to the appearance of motion pictures early in the last century, and those characteristics appear often today, in short stories and novels created by writers who grew up watching television and movies. Many writers have swung in the opposite direction, choosing to take a close look at the characters’ unspoken thoughts and feelings, simply because it isn’t possible in works written for film or theater. The fact is that some stories may require physical action and dialogue, while others need to dwell on the interior lives of the characters, and I feel that each writer should be allowed to decide on the balance that seems right for his or her work.
7. Q. Would you comment on the need for fiction writers to be entertainers as well as technically proficient writers?
A. If providing entertainment means to involve the reader in the characters’ personalities and lives, the world of the story, and a strong plot, great fiction writers have always been entertainers. Whenever we are engrossed in reading a novel or watching a play or movie, those qualities enable us to feel entertained, and we need to stay in touch with them when writing our own stories. It’s easy to make the mistake of associating entertainment with comic relief or, on the other side, to believe that a serious theme and technical adeptness will win the reader’s attention, forgetting that our primary job is to create a compelling narrative.
8. Q. The statistics I have seen indicate that only about ten percent of the titles published in the U.S. are fiction. Is this a cultural effect with the balance being different in other countries, and/or is there something that would make the reading public more interested in fiction?
A. I doubt that this trend can be reversed, unless the spread of IPads, Kindles, and other reading devices brings a renewed interest in short stories and novels. For perhaps a majority of people in our society, the appetite for stories is being satisfied by movies and television programs, including the new and seemingly pervasive form, “reality TV.” Even so, I feel that there will always be people, like us, who are eager to read fiction. Those are the people for whom we are writing, and on-line publishing has provided new and relatively inexpensive ways of reaching them.
9. Q. Is public school education more or less likely to aim children toward writing interest and proficiency than in the past? What would you recommend to improve writing education?
A. In the two years in which my older daughter has served in Teach for America in Washington, D. C., she’s helped me to understand that the reading and writing of stories is still an important part of our educational system. Her seventh and eighth graders respond enthusiastically to stories about people, situations, and places with which they are familiar, and it leads them to write stories drawn from their own memories and imaginations. I hope that educators will continue to acknowledge the essential role that the narrative impulse plays in our lives.
10. Q. With the advent of greater self-publishing, eBooks, and POD publishing we are now publishing more than a million book titles per year. Would you say this is a good trend because more people are getting more experiences in writing books, or do you prefer the traditional publishing gatekeeper approach which limits the number of titles published but tries to guarantee that those published have very high quality?
A. In my answers to the other questions, I’m sure that my enthusiasm for on-line publishing has been obvious. I’m pleased to see that the removal of the gatekeeper has created new opportunities for writers to publish and distribute their work, but there is one aspect that concerns me: the decline of the role played by editors in helping writers to shape and polish their work. This has already happened at some of the on-line journals, which tend to post manuscripts, without changes, soon after accepting them. I hope that people who decide to publish their own fiction will secure the help of an editor, because good books have always reached their potential through collaboration between a writer and an editor who is sensitive to the writer’s purposes.