20 January 2017

Ruminations, continued.

This second professor starting out seemed mediocre.  He was always a little cagey on his qualifications, never quite telling us what they were, only informing us that he had taught this course for many years.  The made me a little wary, but I decided I would try and gut it out.  Besides, all the other classes were full.  It was either this guy or nothing. 
In retrospect, I should have gone with nothing.  It took a while to come to this conclusion, and by then it was too late to withdraw, but we eventually realized what and who it was who was teaching us.  He wasn't the editor I had hoped he would be.  He wasn't even a writer.  He was the worst thing possible: a would be writer, teaching a group of younger would be writers.  The blind leading the blind.  And it got worse. 
You can tell a lot about would be writers from the authors they choose emulate, the ones they pattern themselves after.  In his case, the author he sought to emulate was James Joyce.  The choice was not without its consequences.  Joyce was a polarizer, like, say, JRR Tolkien, or Melville's Moby Dick.  Readers' reactions to these authors and their works tend to be extreme- either the readers have their eyes opened by these books and have the sense that this author or this book is the one they have been searching for all their life without knowing it, or they loathe it.  There is no in-between.  My new professor worshipped James Joyce, and couldn't understand why everyone didn't worship James Joyce, and saw no point in writing unless you were trying to write like James Joyce.  I, on the other hand, and most of the rest of the class for that matter, loathed James Joyce.  We regularly faced his criticism for not being Joyceans, particularly the guy who wanted to write like JRR Tolkien, and kept bringing in novelizations of his Dungeons and Dragons campaigns.  And yes, those were as bad as they sound.  In his case, writing a bit more like Joyce might have been an improvement.
It is fair to say that few, if any authors and especially would be authors write as well as their heroes.  Those who wish to write like Joyce, as did this professor, give themselves a particularly self defeating task- namely, writing like Joyce.  If you look at Joyce's output, it is actually fairly small for someone who wrote for as long as he did.  That is because, in a sense, Joyce did not write as much as he rewrote, restruck, revised, re-edited, searching for some elusive perfection, trying to crush his language into a chemical purity.   
He was so bad about this, his works are nightmares for modern editors. Those who edit his works have given themselves a nightmarish task.  Ulysses, for example went through I believe thirteen or so separate editions in Joyce's time, and he made alterations and emendations to each and every one.  So upon which edition is an editor to base any new edition? The first? The last? Even worse, Joyce kept copies of his own books at home, and he would pull out those copies and scratch out the lines written here and there and write in new lines in marginalia.  Should those be put into a new edition?  And so on. 
What this means for a would be writer such as my professor who is seeking to emulate Joyce is fairly simple and unfortunate.  It means that they have, somewhere in their home, a manuscript that they have been working on for years, often decades.  They are going over it again and again and again, and, usually, whatever readability it possessed was squeezed out of it long ago.  And so it was with this guy.  Years after I took the Joycean's class, I was drinking tea with another professor to whom I told the story of my time in the creative writing program, particularly under this professor.  "Oh, him," he said.  "Did he read any of his manuscript to you?" I told him no.  He had never mentioned his manuscript to the class. Unlike the first professor, this one would never deign to show us any of his writing, submit his work to our judgment.  "You're lucky," this professor said.  He went on to explain to me that my old professor had in a desk drawer somewhere a magnum magnum opus he had been working on for decades, and occasionally he would show portions of it to those whom he believed worthy of his genius, such as it turned out, the professor with whom I was now talking.  The work, he said, was the worst thing he had ever read, completely and utterly unreadable.  But of course he had to tell that would be writer that it was wonderful, provocative, eye-opening, etc. 
And that was the man who was now teaching me how to write.  It got worse from there. 

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