Literary Story: Structure, Imagination, Enjoyment, Meaning
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Interview – Tom Jenks


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Tom Jenks Interview January 2012

William H. Coles

Tom Jenks is the coeditor and founder of Narrative Magazine, the first and foremost digital publisher of quality literature online. He is the editor, with Raymond Carver, of American Short Story Masterpieces, as well as a former fiction editor of Esquire, literary editor of Gentleman’s Quarterly, an advisory editor of The Paris Review, and a senior editor at Scribner’s, where he edited Hemingway’s posthumously published novel The Garden of Eden. Jenks’s stories and articles have appeared in Vanity Fair, Esquire, the Los Angeles Times, Ploughshares, Story, and elsewhere.

Tom Jenks

I’m in San Francisco, attending a writing workshop conducted by Tom Jenks, and after class there is time for a conversation about writing.

William H. Coles

Thank you, Tom, for taking the time to talk to storyinliteraryfiction.com. I know how hard you work and how dedicated you are to your students’ educations, which makes your willingness to interview all the more appreciated.

Tom Jenks

My pleasure.

WHC

What is your concept of story? What does it mean to society?

TJ

Storytellers are myth-makers. Stories explain the things that cannot otherwise be explained. Part of storytelling is the experience of life, and another part is the meaningfulness that the storyteller brings to the story.

WHC

Has storytelling and its effect on readers changed because of the way society is progressing? Is it harder for a writer to put meaning and theme into prose?

TJ

The present always tends to seem a difficult, complex time. The past can seem simpler, but that, of course, is an illusion. Stories move along a line of human emotion, the truthfulness of human emotion. Emotions don’t grow old, emotions don’t change. We may tend to be distracted by current phenomena such as social media or information technology, or the ebb and flow of economics, the haves and the have-nots, or whatever else you want to point to in terms of contemporary problems. But what we always look to in story is human nature. Great stories are always centered on that.

WHC

The demographics of readers who look to story for what you just described is changing dramatically: a significant majority of readers are women, often in midlife; something like 80-plus percent of men don’t read a novel after they graduate from college; fewer literary books are published; agents don’t seek literary fiction. Is the readership changing, and is the receptive base for stories in prose dying?

TJ

Faberge EggI don’t think so. Vogues change, fashion changes, and in a short time one thing may be more popular than another: memoirs may be more popular than novels, or works of nonfiction that are more factual may be more popular. Finding support for poetry is like finding Fabergé eggs. Literary work in terms of pop culture is always a subset. Mass culture is less interested in literature per se than it is interested in entertainment. Good literature entertains, but it doesn’t purely entertain. If you look at Hollywood and the movies that are being made, if we take Hollywood as a representation of pop culture, we could observe that many of the stories that come out of Hollywood originate in books. Movies, television shows, online and mobile media: at the root of much of it is story. Good newspaper articles have a basis in narrative. They do! This is human nature. I don’t think it’s ever going away. But at its highest level of performance, there is a smaller audience for that than there was for Barnum & Bailey. That’s just what it is.

WHC

Isn’t there a tendency for authorial involvement in story, in the sense of memoir, being popular? I always sense you feel that good writing is ubiquitous in both memoir and fiction. In memoir the author is in the story. But great literary stories seem less author based. As you teach fiction, the authorial presence is filtered in complex ways. You express the roles of narrator and character and the relationship of the author. But when the author is openly present in fiction, the readers are attracted by the need for prurient voyeurism, or confessional. Doesn’t the authorial presence in fiction work against the potential of great writing by negating imagined characters and plot outside the author’s experience? My question is: Doesn’t the influx of memoir into fiction writing alter the traditional success of fiction as an art form, because the choices available for great dramatic story telling are more limited?

TJ

Well, that was a long question. [Laughing.] Whoa!

WHC

I’m asking if, as an editor and a publisher, you don’t see more authorial involvement in fiction, to the point of it becoming “me-fiction”?

TJ

I don’t know that I have an absolute answer to that question. An awful lot of people are writing today. One of the good effects of modern education is that there are vastly more people now who can write at a level of relative proficiency than there were in the nineteenth century, for instance. And there are a lot of writing schools and degreed writers coming out of these schools, so there is a culture of writing that didn’t exist previously. Along with that, there’s been a trend in mass culture toward an iconography of the self. Tolstoy, in his essay “What is Art?,” noted that among a hundred works one will be a diamond and the rest will be paste. That’s the perennial circumstance. The real article has always been very rare. And there are degrees from indifferent to wonderful.

It would be easy to say things are deteriorating. There was a point in the technological revolution when there was definitely a falling off of reading, and it was a big concern to everybody who cares about literature, but now that the technology has progressed to the point that its intersection with literature is becoming clearer, as with devices such as the Kindle and the iPad, there’s been a reversal toward more reading rather than less. Prior times have exhibited cycles in which the publishing business has been more conducive or less so for various kinds of material. Whenever the fashion shifts, concern arises. Bookstores are dying. Amazon is bad. Google is bad. But really it’s all just change, metamorphosis.

My belief is in the human imagination, in the human spirit. It’s not a given that everything turns out well, but with care, attention, and persistence things do tend to turn out well. People who are interested in reading, writing, and storytelling are usually interested for all the right reasons. There’s a desire to communicate, connect, understand, share; it’s a basic human need. Storytelling is a vehicle for it.

WHC

The reason I asked the question was not so much to understand the deterioration of story, but to examine the insertion of self into fiction for writers trying to learn the art of fiction. It seems that authors who insert themselves produce a different result when writing objective fiction than authors who limit themselves to their own world and experiences. Is it useful for beginning authors to walk away from the insertion of self into their stories to be able to write stories at a higher fictional level?

TJ

I think everybody writes out of some desire for self-expression. That’s part of it. But then, ideally, it moves from the personal to the impersonal. The material is set free from the individual self and it becomes available in its entirety, in its transparency, to anyone. The work invites a connection and a participation, as opposed to “look at me.”

WHC

One of the concepts I always admire in your teaching is the idea that characters act out stories, narrators tell stories, and authors create stories. Could you articulate the idea that the narrator’s perception is always present in the story, as distinct from the characters’ view? Is there a useful way to think about a narrator’s perspective?

TJ

It’s hard to do better than Virginia Woolf in terms of writing and thinking about writing.1 In her discussion of incandescence, the idea is that in the best work the author’s personality is completely dissolved in the work. The author is omnipresent but nowhere visible in his or her personality. Woolf uses the example of Shakespeare.

WHC

And Wuthering Heights.

TJ

Well, she used the example of Wuthering Heights as a situation in which incandescence is not entirely achieved. The personality of the writer evinces itself in a way that causes an eruption or a break. The author’s individual emotive expressiveness creates a disruptive ripple in the story.

WHC

But Shakespeare?

TJ

In Shakespeare we’re reading Shakespeare, but he has completely deployed his personality by giving over the characters. He’s orchestrating it all without our observing his presence as such.

Tolstoy is another great example. There are three great characters in Anna Karenina: Anna, Levin, and Tolstoy. We experience Tolstoy’s nature only via his gifts in the storytelling and not by literal autobiographical acquaintance with him. And in the best memoir, something similar happens. We know the author by what the author has to say about life, about events and about characters other than the self. Constant, steady self-involvement tends to create a closed loop that holds a reader outside the experience of the story.

WHC

When we go to the movies and are engaged and react–in Howards End, the Merchant Ivory film, for example–and then we read the novel, we might have a different sense of engagement, and a slightly or totally different reaction. It has to do with the differences allowed in storytelling with film and fictional prose. In film, everything is images, action, dialogue. How do we, as beginning writers, use internalization, internal reflection, and access to memory in our written stories to best advantage?

TJ

I don’t watch films the way I read literature, which is to say, with a few exceptions, I don’t take film as seriously as I might. It is an art form, but it’s been said that the good films made from books are best made from not very good books. There are exceptions. You mentioned Howards End. John Huston’s The Dead, a film version of the famous James Joyce story, is another example. Novels can do a lot of things that films can’t do. And often novels do things that don’t lend themselves well to film. The depth and nuance of characterization won’t translate easily to film, especially if the characterizations are interior. In film, what carries a story are the images. Jaws is a perfect film—it doesn’t need any dialogue. You can just watch the images. The whole story is there.

A holy grail of a certain kind of filmmaking is to let the images do the work. The point of view is provided by the camera. Novelists and storywriters do another kind of work. They put it on the page. Film initially took inspiration from the page and imported literary techniques into movie-making. A line space became a jump-cut. But a writer trying to learn to write by watching films or TV may fall into a fallacy of trying to import the techniques of film straight into literature. Most of the time this is a mistake, because there is distortion or exaggeration in the translation, or so much is left out in film that needs articulation on the page. A film audience understands the story from the images, but in written storytelling the language itself does the work.

WHC

Is the translation easier for a genre writer than it is for a literary writer, since genre is not usually based on a character-driven plot?

TJ

I don’t know enough about genre work. When I watch film, I’m just passing the time. I don’t enjoy many films. Few worthwhile ones are being made. The film business sometimes posits the audience as the chumps out there eating popcorn in the theater.

WHC

In literary fiction a writer focuses on character-based emotional arcs, engaging a reader’s interest and sympathy. So is that kind of work a good place for beginning writers to look for inspiration?

TJ

Yes, look to the best authors, the best stories, for inspiration.

WHC

In an imitative way?

TJ

Imitating things you love is a great way to learn. Many writers start that way. Look at the influence of Homer on Virgil, and Virgil on Joyce, Joyce on Faulkner, and Faulkner on Márquez. You take inspiration from what came before, and then you go beyond.

WHC

You’ve known a lot of writers. Who has astonished you? I’ve always admired your associates: Plimpton, Carver, Peter Taylor, to name only a few.

TJ

I was lucky. I went to New York for grad school and, to help pay the bills, I worked in publishing.

WHC

Did you major in English?

TJ

Literature was my undergraduate major. English literature, American literature. But when I went to work in publishing, I found that academic knowledge was almost useless. Discussion and analysis of completed works by dead authors, often from a theoretical perspective, is quite different from trying to be of use to a living author with a work in progress. I was lucky to land in New York at a time when there were a lot of interesting people around. Fiction and the short story were experiencing a great vogue. There was a lot of excitement and interest in it. Right away I got to meet everybody I wanted to meet, and I got to work with a lot of them.

WHC

And did you watch writers working creatively? Can you identify the process? What is it exactly?

TJ

Somebody once said that creativity involves putting together two or more things that don’t seem to go together. Today we hear a lot about creativity. It has become a pop cult idea—as if everyone is creative.

Knowledge, resourcefulness, spontaneity, habituated mastery, strength, sensitivity, perceptiveness, accuracy of touch, and nimbleness are all elements that lend themselves to the creative impulse. Jazz is an improvisational art form, but the artist’s ability to improvise is based on the habituated ability with the music, with the instrument.

WHC

Yes. That’s a good analogy.

TJ

Once I was working with Robert Stone on a piece. I had made an excerpt from one of his novels, for Esquire—this was in the 1980s—and in making the excerpt I made a couple of cuts and the remaining material needed to be stitched back together. Bob came into the office, sat down at a desk, and in a matter of minutes wrote a few sentences. I looked at them and said, “That’s great. That does it.” And he said, “That’s what you do. You bring ’em down and you take ’em up again.” The cuts had needed some transitional material with dramatic force. Bob saw right away what was needed and performed it. He takes great pride in his discipline. Some of it is natural talent, and some of it is accomplishment.

WHC

Can beginning writers learn how to create conflict and drama if that doesn’t come to them naturally?

TJ

Have you read Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana?

WHC

No.

TJ

I’m reading it for the first time. It’s extraordinary. The circumstance in the novel is that there’s a vacuum cleaner salesman in Havana in 1958 just before Castro’s revolution. The vacuum cleaner salesman is enlisted by a British intelligence operative to be “our man” in Havana. The salesman doesn’t really want to be a spy, but he needs the money—he’s a single father with a daughter who wants a horse. The British operative wants our man not only to collect intelligence but also to form a network of intelligence operators. So the vacuum cleaner salesman just makes it all up. He invents agents, he invents information, and his imagination just runs riot. He needs an agent. So, here’s a name, here’s a story. Oh, wait! Oh, no! There’s a complication, and he has to get rid of an agent who doesn’t really exist, so how to do it plausibly? We watch the salesman create fictions, and we’re also watching Greene’s imagination at work through this vacuum cleaner. It’s satirical, of course, and hilarious.

In daily life, most of us go out of our way to avoid conflict, if we can. We think, “Don’t say that!” Or, “Oh my God, let’s don’t have that happen.” But the story writer is going in the opposite direction. Let’s make as much trouble as we can. Let’s really stir it up.

WHC

I think it was Graham Greene who said it is the duty of a novelist to forget, while the duty of a journalist is to remember. The idea is that what you forgot would be internalized to emerge as creativity. It sounds as if this novel is a result of that creative process.

TJ

In Our Man in Havana Greene looked at what was going on in Cuba at the time and wrote the book quickly. It’s short and was timely when he published it, and it holds up very well today. Not many writers can sit down and say, in effect, I see something happening in the world right now, and not only am I going to write a story out of it, but the story is going to be a satire that’s connected to Conrad’s The Secret Agent and exists prominently in a long line of literature of this type. But Greene’s novel is also a genre unto itself, because it has so many different modes. It’s a wonderfully dense piece of work that reads like a horse race.

WH

Thanks for the recommendation. I look forward to reading it.

TJ

Creative activity is a basic human need, but not everyone has the kind of creative ability that goes into writing a great story or novel.

WHC

What’s the difference between the ordinary and the exceptional range of creativity?

TJ

Well, when my middle daughter was in preschool, the kids were painting pictures and one of the teachers would say, That’s good, or she’d say, That’s bad. But kids don’t want or need that sort of valuation. Instead they want, Wow! Or they want some specific, practical helpful information that includes some note of encouragement. They want to paint. But of course the results are not all equal. In our time, there’s a sense in the adult world that everybody is creative and everybody can be creative. Everybody is equal. That Internet helps reinforce this sense of creative equality—whatever anyone writes is equal to what anyone else writes, and anyone’s opinion of what anyone writes is equal to whatever else anyone has to say on the subject. Look at the reader comments on Amazon—most are contentious and negative, a flourishing of uninformed opinion and spleen. Information technology is democratic by virtue of access. Art is not democratic. Reading is democratic. Viewing is democratic. It’s meant to be, and should be, accessible to all. But the creation of art is not really democratic.

WHC

How does intelligence relate to this?

TJ

Well, it depends on what kind of intelligence you’re talking about.

WHC

[Laughing.] Augh. That’s slippery, I tell you.

TJ

The Intelligence Quotient, or IQ, has been an accepted indicator of degrees of intelligence. There’s a scale, 160, 145. God help you, you could have 90. The numbers are meaningful to some extent. But another mark of intelligence is how well a life is lived. There are many kinds of intelligence other than raw IQ. There’s emotional intelligence, intuitive knowing, common sense, and specific gifts for music or math or horse trading. Having a high IQ is not necessarily predictive of success.

WHC

Or of creativity?

TJ

Yes. Individuals with a very high IQ can fail at life and sometimes fail ultimately at the very things they’re best at. Bobby Fischer comes to mind.

WHC

Anyone setting out to be a writer might wonder, Am I capable of doing this? Am I capable of creating art at the level I want? Can I assess my abilities? Am I smart enough, with enough background . . . with enough life experiences?

TJ

You never know what you can do until you do it. And if you’ve done it once, maybe you can do it again.

WHC

I love talking to you and I wish we could go on forever. One wrap-up question. And by the way, congratulations on the success of Narrative Magazine.

Narrative Magazine

TJ

Thank you.

WHC

You’re cofounder and coeditor, with Carol Edgarian. What does Narrative show us about the future of publishing?

TJ

Well . . . that’s a broad question. [Laughing.] Carol had a conversation with the head of the NEA literary panel this week, and it was a really encouraging conversation because he said: You guys were there before anybody else and before anybody knew what it was. Now everybody recognizes it. Basically you guys are the template for what literature can look like, and be, in the digital age.

Today publishing is in a period of transition. Nobody knows exactly what the new permanent steady-state model of publishing will be. Formerly there was a model that everyone recognized and understood, from the end of the Victorian period to about twenty years ago, when technology really began to take off. Now it will take another ten to twenty years before we arrive at a steady-state model that everyone recognizes and agrees on. And all kinds of things are involved, not just the technology, not just the means of delivery for literature, whether we talk about the iPad, the Kindle, or online interfaces, or financial models that involve author royalties, permissions, rights, and the public domain. Everything is in flux. The biggest prior, and relatively recent, revolution in publishing occurred with the invention of the paperback. Compared to that, what’s happening today is enormous.

There’s a current fascination with social media as a necessary companion to literature. Will the fascination last? Does anyone really know?

Authors ask: How do I get out there? Do I need to have a Twitter account? A Facebook account? Some of this activity will eventually subside. The means of delivery is transitory, as compared to what’s inside the book or story or poem or essay. As publishing formats change, we have to make sure that the substance—the quality—of the work is not diminished by the machining of formats.

When we started the magazine, there were no online or digital platforms for first-rank literary work—The New Yorker, the Atlantic, Harper’s, the Paris Review, none of them, nor any other quality publisher of literature, had an online presence. And, according to studies done by the NEA, readers were falling away from literature by the millions, and certainly the rise of technological media was a big part of the shift away from reading. A general sense of depression and indirection was overtaking the literary community, and we wanted to show what quality literature could look like online, and we wanted to do all we could to encourage and support good writing and reading. We started with six authors and about a thousand readers. (You can find the contents of our first issue here: http://narrativemagazine.com/issues/fall-2003.) And I have to say that when we started the magazine, no one—friends and authors—seemed to understand what we were doing, though they were all cheerful enough about it, as if to humor us by saying, Sure, why not?

Today, of course, everyone grasps the challenge and opportunity that technology presents for literature, but until Amazon launched the Kindle in 2007, the handwriting on the wall wasn’t read by many publishers and litterateurs who should have been reading it much sooner. But change, especially the kind of radical change that has taken place in publishing, is always met with resistance, and existing book and magazine content was less immediately available to be digitized than were film and music files. Old-line publishers, clinging to print rights, sunk costs, and traditional bona fides (a digital publication was not considered a “real” publication), harbored reluctance and denial, though the shift from bricks-and-mortar to digital was inevitable once the technological revolution started and the Internet caught the collective imagination.

In the early stages of this shift, Douglas Coupland observed that the Internet had begun to look like a cross between a shopping mall and a bordello, and today online commercialism remains a big challenge to literary values. Amazon’s “the readers decide” is a great consumer-oriented retail credo, but as a literary value it’s akin to a popularity contest. Narrative began and continues as an example of excellence, combining old-school values with new media technology. Narrative was one of the first two periodicals to release an iPhone/iPad Application (it’s free) and one of the first periodicals on Kindle. We have 160,000 readers and publish several hundred writers and artists each year. We have been much watched and imitated by other periodicals with vastly greater resources, and now in an environment in which technology and business investment seek scalability and ROI above all, we continue to look for ways to co-opt the means of production for the sake of literature. We can’t take its existence for granted or think that the free market values it as we do.

The constant readership for good writing forms a small subculture within mass culture. Sometimes a book or author crosses over from the small world to the large, most often in the case of a film adaptation. Cormac McCarthy’s first five books sold about three thousand copies each. Then came the film version of All the Pretty Horses. There are other examples, but the point is that all who care deeply about literature and its generative effect on society recognize that anything and everything that can be done to encourage good writing and reading needs to be done. With Narrative, we work hard to reach as many readers as possible, to put forth the best work by the best writers, to engender an intelligent and respectful level of discourse, and to further the best of traditional literary values in the new age.

WHC

Do you think the influence of word-of-mouth regarding the quality of writing still generates interest? The “this-is-good” phenomenon driving readers to read?

TJ

Buzz always counts. When Umberto Eco published The Name of the Rose, it became a bestseller, though it involved some extremely arcane material. I asked the translator, William Weaver, how he explained the book’s success. He said, “Nobody can explain it. If we could explain it, we would bottle it.”

People talk. Sometime they’re right and sometimes they’re not. When talk creates sales, the talk has weight. Sales may or may not be meaningful in terms of quality. But either way, more people are reading and talking than ever before, simply because there are more people.

WHC

And availability? Are your Apps and mobile editions reaching the same numbers of readers as your online editions?

TJ

In the past twelve months there have been approximately 300,000 articles downloaded via our mobile devices. That’s a big number. This spring we’ll release an Android App, and we think it will be very popular. We expect to gain a lot of new readers. As computers and notebooks merge into hybrid devices and everyone seeks mobility, the desktop site will become a footprint that feeds devices.

WHC

The potential of the digital age for literature seems almost unlimited.

TJ

Narrative Magazine

Publishers are struggling. When technology became an obvious means for literature, I thought, Here’s a great way for writers to connect directly with readers. The only thing writers could not do easily for themselves was marketing. In the digital replacement of printing, binding, shipping, warehousing, and returns, there’s been a great economy and a freeing up of resources. So, for writers, it would seem there should be a greater share of the profit. But that’s not exactly what’s happening.

Instead, Amazon, which is driving the train, has an enormous share of the book market; they set prices and an economic model that puts a lot of pressure on publishers. This condition has not resulted in greater sales or greater profits for writers. Amazon, Apple, and Google are vying to control publishing revenues, and Amazon is leading.

What one hopes is that competition in the marketplace will create something more beneficial to the production of art. Amazon is primarily a technology company. It’s secondarily a retailer. It’s a business. They are publishing works now, as well as selling works published by others. Old-line publishers can’t be too happy about it.

It amazed me that it took Amazon as long as it did to start publishing. I thought they would have done that five years ago. How will it all turn out? I don’t know. Amazon claims that it can provide authors with greater economic benefit by providing books to buyers and by offering a higher-than-standard royalty to writers. But it hasn’t yet been proven that the model works other than by holding prices very low. And most of the books selling on Amazon sell because outside publishers promote the authors.

Overall, I’m optimistic about writing, about writers, and about publishers. I have a basic belief in the human spirit and imagination. Just the fact that you’re sitting there with your iPad, on which you can within a few seconds access almost any work of literature that has ever existed, speaks volumes.

 

 

1Woolf's The Common Reader has a number of enlightening essays.


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