Reading Like an MFA

In 2010, I returned to Pakistan after completing my MFA degree in fiction writing at Columbia University and began teaching at an undergraduate liberal arts program in Lahore. At the time, I believed my task as a literature instructor was relatively straightforward: to help students see multiple possibilities of a text.

It might not sound like much, but it was significant in a context like Pakistan’s where a large function of literature in school curriculum is to serve politics. Just to give you an idea: of the 40 essays and poems included in the eighth-grade Urdu literature textbook, 30 are dedicated purely to propagate and reinforce religious and nationalist narratives. Students arrive at the university with ready ideological notions that they apply to literary texts in order to get to the »correct« interpretation. And »correct« implies flattening the texts to nail them down to nationalist myths and moralistic ideals.
I felt that my MFA training gave me an edge to tackle this problem. For three years I had done little other than formally analyze a whole range of texts in what is known at the MFA as »reading for craft or technique,« or more plainly, »reading like a writer.« For me, helping students to read in this manner was an effective way to undermine the ideological project that had underpinned their literary education thus far.

In the first course I taught, we read a wide range of literary texts – from the Arabian Nights and Adventures of Amir Hamza to Intizar Husain, Lorrie Moore, Italo Calvino, and David Foster Wallace. The framework of our analysis was what I believed to be my guiding insight from my MFA training: the insights from literature were not of substance but of mode; not of content but of form. Literature taught you to be aware of how you engaged with language and through that, only indirectly, did you learn anything about yourself and the world. I cautioned my students against the positive knowledge that was bandied around in literature’s name and bracketed out two words from the classroom: »truth« and »reality,« and substituted them with »autonomous artifice« and »literary effects.« I also restricted my students to thinking about the study of literature as a study of defamiliarizing language, which triggered certain literary effects that in turn needed to be scrutinized. We read Barthes, Sontag, James Wood, Russian formalists and the New Critics.

During this whole process, if a student stumbled upon a piece of personal wisdom, she was usually told it was her own business and not to be brought into the professional precincts of a classroom of aspiring writers. Such things as context, personal experiences, history, and biography weren’t fit for craft discussions, which were only our business as writers. What must occupy our attention were the formal qualities of the texts: language, structure, the how of fiction.

The students were discomfited initially at this complete de-linking of literature from considerations of history, biography, or morally teachable points, but gradually they shifted their focus from »the correct interpretation« to »erotics of literature,« and began speaking about images, language, and structure. Liberated from the anxiety of »correct interpretation,« they entered a more democratic and inclusive space where various possibilities of our experience with language came into play.

It was a success – at first, it seemed.

A good two years into the experiment, cracks began to appear. What was a subversive and liberating activity at first, now felt like asphyxiation.

First, there was fatigue. Treating literature as a self-contained artifice had its pleasures, but one tires of it. More simply put, one likes more than the same kind of pleasure all the damn time. There was also a growing realization that treating stories as mere aesthetic objects quarantined inside books with no relation to the world outside was good enough for maybe two or three students out of twenty-five, but it was not enough to stimulate the rest into an active discussion. They carried different hungers. My classes were offering the students possibilities of various meanings with the instruction that they could grapple with them in their own time if they were so inclined.

The latter realization was driven home when I was teaching Aleksandar Hemon’s The Question of Bruno in a class on contemporary short stories. Hemon’s book is a fictional account of his displacement from his hometown, Sarajevo, due to the Bosnian War. The book, constructed in short stories, is an extraordinary testimony to war, the loss of home and battling history with personal memory. (Hemon consciously wrote the book as a refugee onlooker living in Chicago while the war destroyed his hometown.)

As I taught the book, focusing primarily on its exquisite prose and puzzling over the strange shapes that each one of the stories made, I sensed an unease in the class. Things were not adding up. It was clear that unlike other books, I couldn’t push on with the assumption that the content in this book was incidental to the form. In fact, the only way to meaningfully talk about the form of the book was to begin asking questions of content: What role does individual memory play through the official histories in these stories? How does the fact that this book was written during the war itself affect our understanding of the writer’s engagement with it? How does knowing Yugoslavia’s past as a Soviet satellite and the manner of its subsequent breakup affect our reading of the characters in the book?

Seen in this light, the formal questions in the book became even more interesting. How do Hemon’s choices of formal devices – footnotes, bullet points, intensely realized memories in small portraits, speculative digressions into official accounts – illuminate his particular subject matter? What sort of questions about history, knowledge, and constructed-ness of narratives both historical and personal does he raise by putting such pressures on form? Do the fractured memories of the book have anything to do with the psychic and historical discontinuities and displacements of the characters, particularly the narrator, of the book?

The stories in The Question of Bruno were not simply referencing the historical event but consciously situating themselves inside it and reaching out to tragic, traumatic events in Sarajevo to create meaning. Without an engagement with the content, discussing form was meaningless.

So midway into the semester, I altered my approach and grounded the stories in the city of Sarajevo. We watched a documentary on the Bosnian War, read journalistic accounts of the Bosnian genocide, and discussed our own experiences of violence living in Pakistan. Much to my surprise, once we allowed what it meant to us located in Pakistan to enter the classroom, the entire experience of the work transformed. A classroom of aspiring writers was able to bring their own life experiences into the reading of the work more openly, and as they related their own experiences of violence to their readings of the stories in Hemon’s book, they were able to write more effectively about their own experiences as fiction. Literature transformed from a distant, detached world gazed upon by the cold technician’s eye and became, instead, something of an illuminated space we could enter and experience with our pasts and bodies.

I was on the last chapter of my manuscript, about 90 percent of the way through the first draft, when the entire thing hanging behind me started to appear meaningless. Like, really meaningless. I knew I was doing things right technically speaking and my MFA peers would nod approvingly, and might even express a mild degree of admiration (MFA readers are the hardest to please – if you don’t already know) at some of the formal qualities of my stories, but my heart was just not in it any longer. A ghastly moment.

That’s when I began to wonder about the question of stories themselves. Why do we tell/write stories at all? Why couldn’t we do without them? What do they do that’s so vital? I looked around for answers. The most commonly offered platitudes seemed to be that stories have an «intrinsic value,» that for our spiritual salvation we just simply cannot do without a movie or a book of stories, or that we need an escape into a different world after a hard day’s work, or that we need to be in touch with the noble parts of ourselves through art. These answers seemed unconvincing at best and disingenuous at worst.

The problem I came to accept gradually and reluctantly was the same one I faced in my teaching. That perhaps I was reading things the wrong way. The formalist-textualist way of reading in which I was steeped was actually hindering me from thinking seriously about literature and the role it plays in our engagement with the world. The questions I had come to assume as central to the writer’s craft were actually secondary questions. The real question was the what rather than the how. The obsession with the technical, indeed, the belief that great stories were acts reducible to technique (e.g. Calvino’s Invisible Cities is about coming up with the right »frame«; or Kafka’s Metamorphosis was all about the premise) was where the problem lay to begin with. Because here’s the thing: great stories might be great acts of technique but they were not written for technique as an end. The technique arose as a way to solve problems of the content itself.

When one shifts focus away from writing as an act of pure technique, one is reminded that narratives have other functions: functions they perform most easily for the vast majority of the people, to help them understand reality. It is through narratives that individuals and communities deal with their anxieties about the world; stories help them make meaning of what is happening around them.

It made me think back to the moment where I had actually decided to pursue fiction writing instead of a degree in philosophy or political science. Fiction, I had felt then, was an incredible synthesizing force that cut both inside and out. Fiction was an arena where I was able to account for most of my lived experience: the intellect, emotions, spirit. It gave me a chance to take the biggest, bestest stab at understanding reality – employing my entire experience of mind and body – and still demanded more.

The argument, just to be absolutely clear, is not against technique or craft of writing but for a recognition that form for its own sake is a dead end. The MFA mode of reading – acontextual, ahistorical, actively seeking to represent works of art as products of technical and linguistic virtuosity, where the merit of a good work lies primarily in the novelty of its technique – works against producing writers who draw a broader circle around themselves than mere individual consciousness.

There is no doubt that at the heart of literary enterprise is the defamiliarization of a world we think we understand. But this should not pull one away from recognizing the main function of narrative, which is is to enable individuals and communities to comprehend the world and themselves. Fictions help people render their experience legible and make meaning of their histories and the world around them. This recognition provides a much firmer ground to reflect on both form and technique.