The Heath Introduction to Fiction, 6th Edition

The Heath Introduction to Fiction, 6th Edition by John J. ClaytonAuthor: John J. Clayton
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Company (2000) [Now Houghton Mifflin Harcourt]
Number of Pages: 874
How long it took me to read: Predicted time for initial read-through: 4 months. Likely duration of relationship with book: until death do us part.
Where I got this book: University Library/
ISBN: 0-395-95825-3

Like a Moth to a Flame

This semester, The Heath Introduction to Fiction is the only compulsory text on the reading list for my MA Creative Writing course. All the others are merely recommended. I wonder what it is about this book that makes it so important? No details, other than name and author, are provided. For a postgraduate course, any book with ‘Introduction’ in the title smacks of too-little-too-late. If I haven’t been introduced to fiction by now (smirks the irrepressible devil inside me, resorting to his usual knee-jerk response) why was my application even accepted? But I slap my devil back down into his pit—recently I’ve begun to notice just how embarrassingly off-target his comments usually are—and begin to search for a second-hand copy of the book. I soon find one on Amazon, the exact edition required, but to buy it I’ll need to take out a mortgage. So it’s off to the University library, where I’m relieved to find a copy that not only isn’t just for reference, but also is available on a full-length standard loan. I smuggle it from the shelf, my personal devil rising up again to grin at the thought of secreting it from any other students for at least a month. I’m so pleased with my bounty, and so eager to scan it through the checkout and escape, that I don’t even bother reading the blurb. So, until the next day, I remain in total ignorance of any real treasure it might hold (much to the pleasure of my devil, who relies on my ignorance to retain his power).

Favorite Five

I propose that the top 5 quotes from this book are:

5. “My friend Mel McGinnis was talking. Mel McGinnis is a cardiologist, and sometimes that gives him the right.” ~What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Raymond Carver (p.769)

4. “Why is omniscient narration less common in the twentieth century? First, the omniscient angle of vision assumes a model of reality that modern writers usually do not assume: a model in which there is a single, objective way of looking at reality. Many modern writers don’t feel the security of a world that can be known like this; instead they are faced with the struggle of individual consciousness to understand reality. If the traditional view of God as all-knowing father has been questioned, so has the traditional view of the author as all-knowing portrayer of reality.” (p.5)

3. “On a pattern like this, by daylight, there is a lack of sequence, a defiance of law, that is a constant irritant to a normal mind.” ~The Yellow Wall-paper, Charlotte Perkins Gilman (p.209)

2. “The old man living in the back once said in his gentle way: ‘You should smile at Emily more when you look at her.’ What was in my face when I looked at her? I loved her. There were all the acts of love.” ~I Stand Here Ironing, Tillie Olsen (p.527)

…and my pick for the No.1 quote is…

1. “A story is a creation that tells us what it’s like to be alive in the writer’s world, a creation that lets us put on the writer’s lenses and see the world through them.” (p.1)

New Words

Words are wondrous creatures. Put them together and they paint a picture. Rearrange them and the scene changes. But to be able to see what they are saying, we must first know what they mean.

New Word: jalousies (noun)

Definition (Source: 1) a blind or shutter made with horizontal slats that can be adjusted to admit light and air but exclude rain and the rays of the sun; 2) a window made of glass slats or louvers of a similar nature
Origins: 1585–95; French; Italian gelosia ‘jealousy’; so called because such blinds afford a view while hiding the viewer
As in: “This behind their hands; rustling of craned silk and satin behind jalousies closed upon the sun of Sunday afternoon as the thin, swift clop-clop-clop of the matched team passed: ‘Poor Emily.’ ” ~A Rose for Emily, William Faulkner (p.407)

Conversation with the Reader

While I read, I write, and as I write, I read. Here’s some of what I wrote while I read this book:

“I was expecting, as the title of the book suggests, an ‘introduction to fiction’—perhaps a series of essays on writing and critiquing that, while occasionally dry, would hopefully give a healthy amount of food for though. Judging by the size of the tome, this was either going to be an unusually generous banquet or a torture technique involving a warehouse full of uncooked rice and a starving man. I’ve read enough of these kinds of books now to realise they usually consist of a compilation of essays by several writers, some of whom resonate with me from the first word, and some who appear to write in a language that only by coincidence comprises of English words. But there was just one name on the cover—John J. Clayton—and he wasn’t credited as the editor. Had he written all 800 pages? I was starting to pray (inwardly, to the god in my stomach, who dwells somewhere far beneath my devil) that the inspiration of Clayton’s first words would knock me clean off my seat, when the book fell open at the midway points and I found myself face-to-face with a page from Steinbeck’s The Chrysanthemums. I paused, my fingers hovering, then turned over a chunk of pages to discover Raymond Carver’s Cathedral. Another chunk, and Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Sharer greeted me. This was a revelation. I turned back, with a little more reverence, to the contents page. Out of 874 pages, only the first 56 were given over to essays on writing and reading fiction. The rest—the glorious, almost unbelievable rest—were reserved for short stories by some of the most notorious writers that ever scratched a nib on plant fibre. Praise the literary gods. Now I knew what was so important about this book. It wasn’t just a book. It was a bible of writing.”

“First and foremost—because this is the most relevant point that cannot be repeated enough—fiction is a subjective experience. If it weren’t, there would be no reason for it to exist (see quote #1 above). It doesn’t matter how much someone tells me a piece of writing is brilliant (no, not even if your own devil mocks you). That doesn’t mean I have to relate to it, or even appreciate it. Even if I understand every element of it—subtext, intention, tone, plot, everything—in the same way that they do. ‘Getting’ it is one thing, enjoying it another, and giving a damn—that’s a completely different kettle of extraordinarily dissimilar fish. There’s no reason why I should appreciate Hemingway’s writing just because other people say he’s fantastic. (And no, not Hemingway for any particular reason. I have nothing against his writing at all.) But it does help to understand why he is considered so important, and to understand why my reading of him may differ to that of any other reader. The Heath Introduction to Fiction is a book that strives to help me gain that understanding, to give me the tools with which to chisel out meaning without damaging the stone of the story. In that sense, it isn’t a bible; it’s better than a bible. It wants me to think for myself, and insists on the principal that context is a necessity for comprehension. To this end, Clayton—rather brilliantly—includes a biography of each writer, as well as questions designed to provoke closer consideration of each text after reading. It’s an introduction to fiction in so far as anyone who reads it will learn something new, no matter how well-read or well-published they are in the field of literature.”

“The thoughts Clayton shares in the opening sections do not rely on categorisations such as Modernism or Postmodernism, or even assume their existence. Attempting to define writers—or anyone else—merely by grouping them together as a historic force, opens the door for ignorance of their specific personal context. ‘He’s a modernist,’ ‘she’s a realist,’ ‘they were romantics.’ As relevant as these groupings may be to understanding literary evolution and the context of their particular era (and as much as my own devil loves to lure me down the path of wilful ignorance), these people were all individuals as well, as distinctive as the writing that emerged from them. Being reductive for the sake of simplicity only ever obscures our understanding. This is one reason why Clayton’s own reading of what fiction is and how it works appeals to me above others I have read. He is a celebrant of all literary writers and readers. He doesn’t dictate methods through his own expectations, and isn’t asking me to dig for the literary gold at the spot marked X. He wants everyone to approach the craft from their own perspective; to hone their skills, certainly, but not to bend them into a template of the perfect reader or writer.”

“I hope you don’t mind if I break with proper prose for a moment to simply list some of the writers this book has introduced me to (some of whom I had never even heard of before) whose works I now intend to hunt down and consume without mercy: Tillie Olsen, William Faulkner, Guy de Maupassant, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Alice Walker, and Edith Wharton. That’s six new worlds discovered and I haven’t read a quarter of the stories yet.”

“For all of Clayton’s recognition of the inherent subjectivity of the experience of reading, I’m finding that some of his study guides fall foul of making assumptions about that experience. Questions such as: ‘Discuss the comedy in the encounter with The Misfit. What’s funny?’ (p.663), regarding Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find, or ‘The tears of a character in fiction aren’t necessarily moving. Why do they affect the reader in this story?’ (p.200) for Mary E. Wilkins Freeman’s The Revolt of ‘Mother’ make massive assumptions about reader response. Perhaps the latter could have been better phrased as ‘How did the writer attempt to use them to affect the reader?’, or better still: ‘Did they affect you as a reader and, if so, how?’ This isn’t just semantics. By failing to use questions that acknowledge the idea of subjective reading as dictated by the introductory chapters, Clayton leads readers away from forming their own ideas and into accepting his own interpretation. (I didn’t experience any humour in A Good Man is Hard to Find, regardless of O’Connor’s intentions).

“Fortunately, this doesn’t happen too often, but that it happens at all somewhat crushes the coherence of the literary philosophy he spells out in the introductory chapters. Worse, he sometimes commits this crime in the biography before the short story. I didn’t want to know the details of what happens in A Good Man is Hard to Find before I read it. Certainly it could spoil the suspense (although for this particular story, suspense is unimportant), but more importantly, it nibbles away at my interpretation of the opening moments of the story, bites chunks out of my subjective experience, swallowing crucial personal insights I might otherwise have made. (This might even be why I didn’t experience any humour in this story—I was too busy anticipating the ending). Context is important to understanding a text, but the initial impact of a story should depend upon the reader’s personal relationship with it, not anyone else’s interpretation. From now on, I will read the story before the biographical introduction to keep that first encounter as pure as possible. Then, I will go back and attempt to understand the context, before reading the story again.”

“I’m sitting here, in my room, watching a squirrel dash-dart across a roof on the opposite side of the street, and thinking about what this book means to me, about what kind of landmark it signifies in my own reading and writing. It’s a treasure chest of writing, compiled by someone who is well aware of the subjectivity of reading, and yet who cannot help but place his own emphasis on the stories in the accompanying biographies and study guides. I’ve read about half of them so far. They are all so different. What makes them the fine examples of writing that they are held up as? They’re not all universally accessible in our modern times. Some are anachronisms either in technique or subject matter. Others, like Olsen’s I Stand Here Ironing, have become less relevant in terms of their original intent, but in contrast have more universal appeal. A father in the class I attended last night said he found it easy to identify with both the domestic chores and the sense of failing to live up to the responsibilities of parenthood implied in Olsen’s tale. How many men could have said, or admitted, that in Olsen’s day? How would Olsen feel about it herself?

“People write for many reasons: to make an ethical or political point; to better understand themselves or others; to provoke emotion or thought; to promote their spirituality; even in the foolish hope of making so much money they can go on writing forever. But I can guarantee that every reader will respond unexpectedly in some way. I felt this deeply in class last night, when receiving feedback on the first section of my own short story. Each reader’s comments sought to stretch the tale in a different direction, each led by different expectations, different interpretations, different life experiences.

“So what is the purpose of this writing? Should I be content with the pleasure (or, at least, the expurgation of frustration) that the writing process brings? Should it matter to me how the writing is perceived; if some people cannot decipher the intended symbols, or make the necessary jumps from text to subtext at my designated points? If that doesn’t matter, then what is the purpose in sharing it at all? Perhaps people with political or ethical messages should become politicians or protesters; people who want to make money learn accountancy skills; people who wish to transmit spirituality become priests, rabbis, street heralds; people who require self-validation seek counselling. But should those who wish to write, write? Should we always be allowed to get what we wish for, simply because of some over-romanticised human notion of achieving a cultural desire?

“The squirrel knows best. Its desires are simpler. It chases after food, and safety. Perhaps, over the last millennia, humanity’s desires have become complicated to the point of over-entitlement. But what does that have to do with my writing? If I write about such feelings, in a literary way, and spend my life seeking to get them published and publicised, would it be understood by any people/enough people/the necessary people? Who are these mysteriously shifting folk, the effective audience, that take our words and use them to create sustained change? Should they even be a factor I consider when writing?”

“If fiction writing can be said to fulfil a specific, unique purpose in the experience of humanity, it is surely that of exploration. Fiction writers are explorers, and must want most of all to explore. What we explore is a matter for our own discretion, but if it must be condensed, simplified, then it can only be described as the interaction of humanity (as a species, as cultures and as individuals) with their selves, their environment and each other. As a writer, I cast off from the lonely shores of my mind to set sail on the infinite oceans of possibility. Where I wash up is determined by the map of my being and the compass of my thoughts. Once I beach, my job is to work the land I find, sculpt it into something new, before inviting readers to look around. How I interact with this land is as much a story as my final written record of the adventure. Who reads it, and how they interact with it, is another.”

“It must be said that my workshop experiences have suggested (not only with my work but with that of other writers on the course) that most readers are looking to identify with fiction rather than explore it, to self-validate rather than attempt to comprehend, or celebrate, the uniqueness of each literary island—a uniqueness that is just as likely to be found in the writer who lives next door as one who lives on the other side of the ocean. I am (or, if I wish to blame-shift, my devil is) just as guilty of this, perhaps because there is little time to give to a proper consideration of the writer’s own perspective, and rarely an opportunity to discuss it with them further. I wonder, when this so often seems the case, what the point is in journeying to the writer’s world at all? Surely it is our differences that should motivate us to understand, and be worthy of celebration, rather than our similarities? It suggests an unhealthy tendency for humans to culturally homogenise rather than diversify. Homogenisation leads to stagnation, and stagnation to death. The Internet, in spite of its negative aspects, provides an opportunity to diversify. We have easier access to global fiction and a much larger map of less familiar worlds than ever before in our history. We should explore those worlds fully with innocent, wondering eyes, not thrash around in their waters like drowning sea-rats, hastily scanning the coastline for recognisable flotsam into which we can sink our sharpened critical teeth. Our reading should now, more than ever, have the chance to flee the shackles of both tradition (personal and cultural) and of corporate determination.”

“The stories here have all made me think (regardless of the specific journey on which each one has taken me), and Clayton’s entries have, for the most part, assisted that thinking—albeit sometimes ahead of time. So, because thinking about writing, hacking my way through the overgrown and unknowable experience of others, is something on which I clearly consider it worth spending my time, I ended up taking out that mortgage to buy my own copy. It’s unlikely I’ll ever find a more lustrous collection of short fiction.”

Gareth Long

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