03 January 2005

what Michael Martone thinks

The Winter 2004 issue of Indiana Review includes an interview of Michael Martone by Sara Jane Stoner. Martone writes fiction that is more experimental than most, and he challenges the way fiction is taught these days in most MFA programs.

“I think the downside of the prose workshop is all of a sudden you're really talking about the ideas or themes of the story. Or worse, you're talking about the characters, these artifices, as actual people—whether or not ‘Jim Bob’ would do this. ‘You know, he’s twelve-years-old, I don’t think he really would be thinking these thoughts.’ It becomes a kind of analysis of these characters as living humans as opposed to the writing itself. Because again, the strategy of that writing, of realistic narrative writing, is to completely disappear as writing. So you can’t talk about it. It becomes, if it is done well at all, an invisible thing.”

Martone argues against this. He says,

“If you’re a realist, your real problem, your real competitor, is nonfiction, the nonfiction memoir. If you look at the form of realistic writing, it is already in the form of the memoir, a fake one, a fiction of one.”

Martone challenges the author of fiction to be an artist, which for Martone means someone "more self-conscious about [fiction's] forms." He works at shifting workshoppers back into the position of readers instead of critics or editors, people who would ask, "What makes this a well-wrought sentence?" He notes that students workshopping a Barthelme story would be forced to do this, which makes me think of Grace Paley and Lydia Davis stories, Ben Marcus novels. They're not about realism, they are other forms of fiction.

Indiana Review is one of my favorite journals, not because I always like the work published, but because the work pushes boundaries that other first-class journals don't often push. That said, some of the work in the Winter 2004 issue knocked me out, the flash by T. J. Beitelman, short stories by Robin Black and Shaun McGuire -- excerpt here, poems by Deborah Bernhardt, Karen L. Anderson, and others.

I recommend you subscribe to Indiana Review, read Martone's interview, along with the rest of the issue. Read a book by Martone, for example, his The Blue Guide to Indiana, which I haven't read but intend to now.


  1. Martone's words hit home in perfect timing; in my writing group yesterday, one of the women told of how two men attacked her (verbally) because they thought her main character was cold and calculating. They didn't believe that her narrator (a teenage girl) would really act the way she acted and they were pissed at the writer because they had always thought she was a nice person.

  2. my my, let's all hear it for nice people :0

  3. Um, teenage girls NOT cold or calculating? Have these men ever met a teenage girl?

  4. Very interesting stuff, Carol. I'm reading for my workshop right now, and in particular with one story my own thinking was, "would this woman do this?" I was mostly focused on the flow and the language, but I can't help but be stirred by the character's actions. Not so much the legitimacy of the action, but whether the writer is really aware of the impact those actions have on the reader. And, I'm also wondering how Grace Paley is going to react to this stuff (and my stuff)!

  5. Thanks for the links, Carol. I have the issue (but, naturally, haven't exactly read it). I wonder what you think of the story by Quinn Dalton. Quinn was at Sewanee this summer. In addition to being a fine writer, she was pretty much the nicest person at the conference (which had lots of nice people).