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Who’s my Guinea Pig?

Guinea Pig

Earlier this year, Boston Review published this boring piece of MFA Story-styled fiction. I’d like to take you through this story bit by bit and point out some of the places where this story fails. And I promise you, I’m not looking high and low to find examples of stories that fall into one (or more) of those four categories. Pick up any magazine, flip to the fiction section and within the first few paragraphs (if the work contains paragraphs) you’ll be able to tell which of the four story types you’ve got on your hands.

Link to the full story: Guinea Pig by Charles Johnson, Boston Review January/February 2011

Here's how “Guinea Pig” starts:

I was a student at the University of Washington in Seattle, with a double major in Philosophy and English, those two broken and declining (if not already dead) fields in higher education.

There are major warning signs right from the beginning that we’re going to have an MFA Story ahead of us. Didn’t even have to finish the first paragraph, right? From the start we have an English major—no, wait, our guy is a double major—he’s got Philosophy too. And we have a college, so the story is most likely set on or around a college campus. Of course the featured university is the very same university where the author is a professor. I know this because I looked him up: “Charles Johnson is a National Book Award–winning author and Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Washington.” As in: Seattle, Washington. I wonder if Charles Johnson also majored in Philosophy.

Not that a story can’t be set in an author’s hometown, or even be on a college campus for that matter. I’d argue that most stories set on college campuses and written by college professors are pretty boring, though. But let's read on and see if this story gets any better. A few paragraphs later:

So instead of preparing for my classes this fall, I’m sitting in a chair amiddlemost [sic] a laboratory longer than it is wide, lit overhead by soft fluorescent bulbs beneath one of the science buildings funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Their largesse is visible everywhere on campus, but especially here in the high-tech labs and über state-of-the-art scientific equipment.

It’s time for the author to load up on smart-person proper nouns. “Ooo, I know who those people are! Those are the names of people that smart people know! I know those names! I must be smart!” This is writing that is meant to placate the reader’s ego, while boosting the writer’s ego at the same time. Charles Johnson can also pat himself on the back for knowing who Bill and Melinda Gates are. Note also how Johnson has loaded up on description. Why? Is it important to the story that the bulbs are fluorescent? Is it important that the lab is longer than it is wide? Is it important that the Gates Foundation has made donations to the university that has resulted in high-tech equipment all over campus? (Hint: It’s not at all important to the story, but description is good for eating up a word count, so Johnson—and Johnson’s editor—left it all in.)

Miles of cables like a nest of boa constrictors

[A quick check of Wikipedia informs me that Boa constrictors are solitary creatures; they do not nest with others, so this simile doesn’t work.]

are hidden away behind the walls, ceiling, and floor. Flasks and burners in the lab are interspersed with a warren of monitors,

[The warren thing is confusing to me. A warren is either a place where rabbits live. Or ‘warren’ can also be used to describe a bunch of close-together residences. For the sake of argument, let’s say that the author is describing a metaphorical ‘warren’ of monitors that are packed closely together. If that were the case—what’s the deal with the flasks and burners? Are these tools also closely-packed with the monitors? If so, then they aren’t interspersed with the ‘warren of monitors’—they’re all in the same warren. Right?]

scanners that in seconds can read every chemical beneath the casement of your skin, then spit forth a fire hose

[A fire hose does a hell of a lot more than spit. ‘Spit’ is a bad word to use here, if the author wants us to think of something that gushes with a strong fire hose-like flow.]

of data into devices that compute a thousand times faster than human thought. Two technicians of 25 and 30, very polite, are making last minute adjustments. I’ve been calling them Alphonse and Gaston because one is tall with a stiff, sliding way of walking, while the other is bald, has a belly that bubbles over his belt, and keeps a goofy little grin plastered on his face.

Look at all of that description. If you go to the full story you’ll see that there was two full paragraphs of it. And why? Again, I’m all for setting a scene, but read the above again and ask yourself: was that scene-setting meaningful at all? Finish reading the story, and then read it again, and be critical as you re-read. Was it important for you, the reader, to know that one of those two technicians was fat? What about the other stuff—the stuff about the cables or the monitors? Was that stuff important?

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A little later in the story:

For me, a lowly, financially ludicrous philosophy geek in the unscientific, subjective world of literary studies, Dr. Conner, as she examines some head-breaking equation on her clipboard, is so heartbreakingly beautiful she makes my eyes blur, like maybe I’m looking at Gwyneth Paltrow in a white lab coat, gold-framed oval glasses over leaf-green eyes, with fawn-like ears, a nose turned up at the tip, and copper-colored hair pinned behind her neck by a wooden comb.

[Again: so much description. Is this stuff important?]

I guess I have a serious case of slide-rule envy. Women with IQs over 170 have always been catnip for me, the way mountain climbers are drawn to the Matterhorn. I just fall apart in their presence.

[Confusing again. Do mountain climbers fall apart in the presence of the Matterhorn? Which point is the author trying to make—that he is drawn to women with high IQs (not a good measure of intelligence, but the academically-inclined love to think that these numbers are meaningful), or that women with high IQs make him fall apart in their presence? Without the final sentence, I’d have thought the former. But that last sentence throws everything off. Confusing.]

Charles Johnson goes on to name-drop some more proper nouns in his story: The 1812 Overture, Handel, Plato and even Socrates to round things out. In his insecurity, the author is validating his own intelligence by mentioning such esoteric proper nouns. He’s trying to show his readers that he’s a smart guy, and he’s trying to make me feel smart by giving me these smart-looking things to recognize. And then he tries to bring us back to “the street” and the main character asks the smart lady researcher:

“And you listen to George Clinton music on your iPod?”

[Ignoring for a moment that nobody would phrase their question that way in regular, everyday conversation, jamming George Clinton in among the rest of that MIT/Gates/Plato stuff is such a transparent tactic. Charles Johnson is trying to communicate that his characters aren’t just boring academics, they’re super-cool because they listen to funk on their iPods. Because only people with proper street-cred know about George Clinton. Right. My mother knows about George Clinton. But that’s not the point. The point is that the author is resorting to the use of an iPod playlist to communicate “cool” to the reader. Not through the character’s thoughts or actions of anything else. We’re supposed to read “George Clinton” and understand “this character is cool after all.” Lame.

As a reader, I find this all very insulting, the fact that this author thinks that his story has to assuage my intellectual ego and demonstrate his “cool factor” giving his characters a dose of his own fake street cred. Maybe later I’ll read that the character is even cooler still and he’ll choose to eat lunch at Taco Bell instead of the campus sushi place.

The predictably of such tactics is galling and this kind of pretentious name-dropping puts me off of a story. I want to read a story, not a list of things the author thinks makes him smarter and cooler than other people. I'd rather read something that surprises me and delights me. Instead what I've found is yet another story that bores me to tears and insults my intelligence. But let's move on. The smart lady’s response to the George Clinton question appears below.

“Yes—yes, I do.” She cuts her eyes at me. “Jeremy, where is this going?”

[This is confusing. I'm not sure what this is supposed to mean at all, this “she cuts her eyes at me” thing. She looks at me and beholds a sharp and swift gaze? That doesn’t make any sense. A gaze doesn’t move. She slices her eyes—no. That can't be right. Her eyes are still in her head. She slices the air like a knife where her eyes are the knife—knives—as she looks at me? No; that sounds crazy. Should I be confused here? This particular gesture by this particular character seems important in the story. I don't want to be confused. I don't think the author wants me to be confused. But in trying to be “creative” with language, Charles Johnson has left me to come to my own conclusions about what he’s written. I’m left to interpret his words, not to understand them. Reading the story is an exercise for me, not an enjoyable act, but an exercise. It’s one thing to work at reading a story—a well-written story rewards a reader for putting forth the effort, but this story is not rewarding in the slightest. It’s pat-on-the-back stuff. Go me, I know Plato, Handel, Bill Gates. I’ve survived this story, not grown because of it.]

[To read more examples and descriptions of what makes a story an MFA Story, click here.]

Back to reading along in our story, the reader is presented with a totally unrealistic situation:

They hurry out of the room, and when she swings her head back toward me, I’m so mesmerized by the beauty of the golden highlights in her hair that, in spite of myself, a new impulse takes hold of me.

I lick her face.

Licking??! Oh my, my heart rate's up and I'm feeling faint. Risky, risky, oh so risky, this story is taking chances!

That was a joke.

This “write something fake-shocking and risky” tactic in an MFA Story is so transparent: the author is trying to demonstrate that his characters have playful emotions, and that the characters have a life to them that can't be contained on the page. So he's had his main character do something “shocking,” which isn't so much shocking as it is bizarre and unrealistic, even by bizarre standards. I understand that this story is about the transmutation of a dog's mind into the body of a man, and the licking happens as an after-effect of an experiment, but I’ll buy the body-swapping concept before I buy this face-licking thing. The author has completely lost me as a reader. Not that he ever had me in the first place, but seriously, that licking thing, come on.

This is not a story. It’s something written by a writer. There's a huge difference. In a well-written story, the story is the point, not the writer. In this story, like so many MFA Stories, the writer is showing off his knowledge of academic topics, “cool” music, and he’s giving us lots of description so he can use his adjective and make metaphors and similes. Is that what they’re covering in writing workshops?

“So much about you is different now,” she says. ”You seem much more useful and . . . feral. Yes, I think perhaps we can do dinner. I’ll bring a tape recorder.”

Let’s take a closer look at the dialogue here. Is this how people talk? Really: read through the above section again and notice how unnatural the dialogue is. Do people say “feral” in regular conversation? I've talked to a lot of people in my lifetime, and I've never heard anyone use the word “feral” outside of a conversation about The Feral Kid in Mad Max. I'll grant that people know the Feral Kid. Fine. But does anyone really even know what “feral” means, actually? No matter. The author knows the word “feral” and wants to stoke his fragile ego by showing off that he knows the word “feral” which means that this character is saying “feral” in this story, regardless of how unrealistic it sounds, dammit. And “Yes, I think perhaps we can do dinner” is not how anyone would verbally agree to go out to dinner with someone. Charles Johnson's sentence is formal and stiff and not at all what would be overheard in actual dialogue.

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Get a load of the ending of this story. The last sentences are reprinted below. I groaned out loud when I read this and was so glad that there wasn't anyone around to whom I had to explain myself. I would have hated to have been caught in public reading this story. It's that embarrassing.

I figure we have enough to discuss for a lifetime, and who knows where things might go from here? But this is where my fabliau

[This character is even showing off his vocabulary in his internal thoughts. Is that realistic? That word is totally out of context.]

(I believe that’s the right form; I aced a class on the genre) ends,

[Oh goody, another one for the English majors: an English-major reference for the MFA candidate who is likely to recognize themselves in this story. And academics love their grades; most academics think that a “acing a class” would be much more desirable than a year’s worth of experience at an actual, like, job.]

one I hope caused no offense, but if it did, try to keep in mind that sometimes every able-bodied American male enjoys being a dog.

[What an awful cliché. Mystery Science Theater 3000 awful. See what I mean? Groan out loud awful ending.]

What on earth makes an editor decide to publish this story in their magazine? The answer is a simple one: it contains all of the things the editor is looking for: predictable University setting. “Creative” use of language. Overuse of advanced, out-of-context vocabulary that puts the author’s own vocabulary skills on display. Loads of description.

The preponderance of stories like this one is appalling. Again, pick any magazine, find the fiction section and start reading. What did you find? Send me a direct message on Twitter with a link to the story plus your classification and I’ll re-tweet it.

What’s a reader to do? How can these people think that there is any value in publishing this garbage? And how do we get them to stop?