Complaint Of the Novelist Pig

As an aspiring novelist, I like to read about other writers and how they found success. But in books and magazine that write this sort of swill, I often find an implied assumption that an aspiring writer will, as a matter of course, enter an Master of Fine Arts program to get his or her graduate degree in Creative Writing.

Since I have no intention of embarking on such a course — how long would a talking pig last in a creative writing class? — I thought I would defend my intention by finding out how my favorite writers got their start and how many of them had MFA’s.

Danny Meadow Mouse and HootyI think I’ll attempt this in chronological order, beginning with the first writer who made an indelible impression on my life. I was five years old. The writer was Thornton W. Burgess, author of about a million animal stories for small children. I’m willing to assume that, in addition to creative writing, he studied wildlife management and child psychology too. I know he was pretty successful at what he did. In fact, while I was still in kindergarten, I taught myself to read so that I could devour more and more of his tales of the animals of the Smiling Pond and the Green Meadows. His characters acted like real animals except they talked to each other and had to solve little moral dilemmas that I could understand. When Hooty the Owl caught Danny Meadow Mouse and lifted him up over the snowy fields in the moonlight, I was, not exactly terrified, but unbearably excited to see what would happen next. One thing I knew for sure: Danny would escape. Thornton Burgess’ animal world was that kind of world. And that was just the way I liked it. Burgess wrote over seventy of those little books and I wanted to devour every one.

OK,let’s see what Thornton’s credentials are…hmm,what’s this? According to American Writers for Children, 1900-1960, after high school he went to business college for a year to try learn accounting. Didn’t like it, and quit. Got a job in a shoe store. That’s it. That’s his entire advanced education! What gives here?

When he was twenty-one, he snagged a job as janitor/office boy at a publishing company. The publishing company put out magazines for farmers. Burgess didn’t know anything about farming, but he knew the editor, so he tried submitting a few little pieces. One thing led to another. He became a part-time, then a full-time reporter. He learned by doing! Found out what worked by bashing away at it day after day.

eye of needleWell, that was a long time ago. Let’s pick somebody more current. How about, Ken Follett, the thriller writer? His stuff doesn’t thrill me with delight, but neither do I despise it. I’ve read my share of Ken Follett thrillers and enjoyed every one. And, since he’s one of the most successful writers out there, so let’s see where he got his MFA in Creative Writing.

Well, according to British Mystery and Thriller Writers Since 1940: First Series, Follett went to University College in London, where he took his degree in… philosophy. Philosophy? Well, he probably wanted to get his moral bearings in an ambiguous universe so his characters could agonize more about their despicable deeds, after he finished his advanced writing degree, right?

Actually, he went home to Wales and snagged a job for the South Wales Echo, writing their rock music column for three years. Then he became a crime reporter and started writing thrillers on the side. If he ever took a writing class, there is no record of it. Just kept bashing away to see what worked.

I know, you’re probably saying Pig, you’re only picking writers that you know never went to graduate school. What about those high-toned guys who write literary fiction? The kind that critics like and wins awards? They must have MFAs!

Listen, don’t get me started on critics. I wish they would all go shoot themselves.

Listen to what The Oxford Companion To Children’s Literature says about Thornton W. Burgess stuff, the man who opened the wide world of books to me forever: “an undistinguished mishmash in imitation of The Wind In the Willows…Beatrix Potter…and Uncle Remus, but (sniff) very popular in his time.” And please don’t mention that undistinguished name in my critical presence again. Hmmpf.

Frankly, I find it hard to open a novel that promises long pages of careful introspection and Scandanavian angst. A novel about a husband and wife not discussing their marital problems for 300 pages in their middle class kitchen in Connecticut only gets interesting to me when pirates suddenly leap through the kitchen window, kidnap the wife, and the husband has to rescue her before it’s too late! But that mostly doesn’t happen.

240x240_bio_percyHowever, there is one literary writer I actually enjoy. He was a Southerner by the name of Walker Percy.  I’ve read two of his novels and they both were about alienated Southerners walking around the South not thinking about things.  But, for some funny reason, I really like the guy’s work and want to read more.   So let’s look him up.

Ah, Walker Percy. Went to college back in the thirties where he studied…chemistry. He eventually became a pathologist, and while autopsying tubercular corpses, contracted TB himself. Through his long sanatorium convalescence he started reading — French and Russian literature, philosophy, psychology, anything to keep his mind going. Made him start wondering about things. How come if science is so great, men and women tend to be so unhappy and confused? And lead such shallow lives?

So he recovers, but doesn’t want to be a pathologist anymore. He decides to try writing books about this dilemma that has become real to him. Quits his job, moves back to Louisiana, lives off an inheritance from a relative, and starts bashing away to see what works. His third novel, The Moviegoer, wins the National Book Award. So he never set out to write literary fiction. He set out to use fiction to solve the problem that gnawed at him.

I am not totally convinced that going to graduate school is the best way to learn anything in the creative line. Has jazz noticeably improved since musicians started getting degrees in it? Actually, no. It’s gotten more boring.  Today, jazz lovers are still listening to the guys like John Colrane and Miles Davis who learned from bashing away in the clubs ever night.

What about movies? What film school did Francois Trauffaut or Frederico Fellini go to? I think it was called the school of life. They learned their trade by making movies all day. Did that school close down? It turned some pretty good guys.

So, in conclusion, ladies and gentlemen, I think I’ll just sit here and bash away until I finally figure out what works.


13 thoughts on “Complaint Of the Novelist Pig

  1. The term “bashing away” or “bash away” doesn’t sound friendly to me. Bashing away sounds more like a term for what a person would be doing hacking his or her way through some think ungiving chaparral, using a dull machete. Or is this your point? Do you think “bashing away” can be used in a caring sense too?

    I laughed when I read your comment: “Frankly, I find it hard to open a novel that promises long pages of careful introspection and Scandinavian angst. A novel about a husband and wife not discussing their marital problems for 300 pages in their middle class kitchen in Connecticut only gets interesting to me when pirates suddenly leap through the kitchen window, kidnap the wife, and the husband has to rescue her before it’s too late! But that mostly doesn’t happen.” This is outstandly visual, and “interesting,” as you indicated. Best wishes.


  2. Ha! PP goes into his “office” and closes the door after solemnly announcing he is going to get back to work. Crashing sounds and loud music can be heard, and now and then guffaws…Good! He’s on a roll! No more moping and being depressed! However, The Novel must wait until another day, after he’s done complaining.


    • Hi Angi – Well, guess I’m back in the pigsty, chewing on a piece of straw and watching the clouds roll by. Pretty soon I’ll get an idea, or maybe Mr. Boomschmidt will offer me a job with the circus.


  3. Hey there PP, something told me to check you out today. I know about getting ideas while watching the clouds roll by. I just wanted to tell you that I passed my dissertation defense, and Dr. Diego graduates in August.

    Peace and love man.


  4. I love this! I’m with you – studying jazz, art, writing, in school can’t make you more soulful, more adventurous, more interesting, more experienced, more humorous. No!

    Every time I read your stuff, I wonder why the heck I don’t stop by more often. Your writing (just as you are) is everything an MFA can’t give you: soulful, adventurous, interesting, experienced and damned humorous.


  5. I remember Phil Whalen saying something like “poetry is like ambergris, vomited up by sick whales.” If the world has a use for ambergris your in. Kerouac was not highly educated but his real education came from hanging out with people who had a condensed knowledge. Rexroth was not highly educated in a formal sense, but was one of the most educated men around. I think all those guys rode in on a wave of “the need for something new” that the society has from time to time. If you catch that wave you’re lucky. I have known plenty of people who were really good but went nowhere.


  6. I enjoy reading Walker Percy’s dystopias, but Doc Percy was not exactly PC, or too fond of hippies and the left. In Love in the Ruins, he satirized the new left, did he not (though he makes fun of fundamentalists as well, as with the country clubs scenes).

    Percy sort of understood what happens when leftists go wrong, or something like that–as with that big dysfunctional zone the Bay Area.

    Here’s a site– (in your neighborhood) chockful of phony leftists . The big corporate liberal sites–such as Daily-KOS—created these sort of new, PC-pseudo-liberal loudmouths who never read a word of Percy in their lives (or, say, the founding fathers).

    Like most great writers, Percy transcended mere ideology.


  7. Hey Senor Perezoso,
    I refuse to rise to your bait, as you are obviously a man of taste and subtlety of thought, even if it’s not expressed in your note! I do have to rise to one phrase however. The Bay Area a dysfunctional zone? The home of Google, Yahoo, WordPress, Facebook, Craig’s List, Netflix, and a million other innovational companies that are changing the world each day, dysfunctional? Plus it benefits from a whole lot of different immigrant cultures all living together, for the most part, pretty successfully. Housing is not phenomenally expensive because people don’t want to live there. You may not like the way it is functioning, but, within its own terms, it is functioning very very well.
    The Bay Area I grew up in in the fifties and sixties is gone. But that’s California for you. That’s what they do there. Change.


  8. How come if science is so great, men and women tend to be so unhappy and confused? And lead such shallow lives?

    Sound Percyian question, especially in the Age of GoogleCo.

    The USA could use some of Walker Percy’s wisdom at this present juncture as they say, instead of loudmouth media pundits or possibly worse, the obscene pseudo-hipsters common to blogdom, such as the bozos of New Worlds.

    Sort of the anti-Percy (like their hero Andy “Fallujah” Sulllivan)


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