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EN910 Fiction Workshop 1

Prof. David Vann. Office: Millburn House
Seminars at Wed 4-7pm, Writer's Room. Contact:

Autumn 2017 Office hrs: Wed/Thurs 3-4pm

Fiction Workshop

A short story is a compressed, cohesive, and paranoid world. We’ll analyze the rules of that paranoia and also consider departures and surprises. We’ll work toward a consistent, flexible, and detailed vocabulary of craft, a language for understanding and discussing characterization, dramatic arc, subtext, theme, signs and symbols, point of view, style, tone, setting and imagery, etc. For raw material, we’ll read a range of short stories and a few novel excerpts, a personal essay and a poem. We’ll also workshop your own work.

The writing requirements, totaling 10,000 words (can vary to 8,000 or 6,000 if you are in a different track), are two new short stories (both of which will be workshopped) and a critical essay (the essay is 2,000 words of the total). You must write new work (and no ‘multiple submission’ or ‘group work’ allowed).

I’ll email the published readings to you as PDFs or Word files. I’ve kept the number of pages fairly light, and I’ll expect you to read each of the selections twice, the first time for its effects and the second to look more carefully at how it was made.

Finally, you’ll be reading the works in progress of your peers, and I’ll expect you to comment on these works with respect, hard intelligence, and thoroughness. You’ll need to read each piece up for workshop at least twice and offer a written comment as well as participate in the workshop discussion.

I don’t grade your pieces when you put them up for workshop but consider instead your final portfolio, which includes your two short stories and your critical essay. Here’s how the grade will be weighted:

Short stories: 75% together
Your critical essay: 25%

Your two short stories are due as you come up for workshop (handed out to the class a week ahead of time), and your final portfolio, which includes your critical essay and your two stories, revised or unrevised (your choice), is due on one of the mysterious dates of your choosing provided by the system here (something like your choice of Feb or May). Your final portfolio should not include new stories that I haven’t previously seen.

The module will be a good one only if all of us attend, arrive on time, and are well-prepared. Missing class really is unfair, also, to the students whose work is being discussed that day. So your attendance at every class is required, and lateness is not appreciated, because it distracts. If there’s a problem, I reserve the right to drop you. If you have a real excuse to miss class, I need notification by email at If you miss a class, it’s your responsibility to contact another student in class to find out what you missed and to make sure you’re prepared for the next class.

Workshop Timetable

In our first three meetings, we’ll discuss published texts.

From our fourth meeting on, we’ll discuss one or two published texts per class and workshop your stories – three students per week. These will ideally be 10-15 pages (12 point double spaced). You’ll hand out copies of your story for workshopping one week before your workshop. You each have two workshops.

One more note on the readings. You’ll notice that most of these aren’t very recent. These are works that shaped my understanding of fiction, a kind of personal anthology, which is something you’ll need to find for yourself. So I’d like each of you to give a 5 minute presentation (and please don’t turn this into 10 minutes) on two or three authors you’re reading, explaining what it is you aspire to in their work and what their work has taught you about fiction. Given how literary influence works, you could possibly consider this the most important assignment in the course, though it’ll be ungraded.

Week One (Style and Description)
Proulx, from The Shipping News
McCarthy, from Blood Meridian
Robinson, from Housekeeping
Tobias Wolff, This Boy’s Life (pp 3-8)

Week Two (The Protagonist)
O’Connor, “Everything That Rises Must Converge” and “A Good Man Is Hard To Find”
Faulkner, “Barn Burning”
Nabokov, “Signs and Symbols”

Week Three (Dialogue and Structure)
Paley, “Wants”
Carver, “They’re Not Your Husband”
Chekhov, “Lady with the Pet Dog”
Hemingway, “Hills Like White Elephants”

Week Four (Voice)
Carver, “Cathedral”
Kincaid, “Girl”
begin workshopping (three student stories each week)

Week Five (Breaking the Rules)
Diaz, “Drown”

Week Six (More Breaking the Rules)
Wolff, “The Liar”

Week Seven (Drawing from other genres)
Baldwin, “Notes of a Native Son”
Bishop, “At the Fishhouses”

Week Eight (Novella)
Porter, “Noon Wine”

Week Nine (Magical Realism and Symbol)
Garcia Marquez, “Handsomest Drowned Man in the World”
Ozick, “The Shawl”

Week Ten

(readings unassigned for now, to give me some flexibility)

Secondary reading list (mostly the full books that we’re reading excerpts from in the module)

Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian
Flannery O’Connor, The Complete Stories
Tobias Wolff, This Boy’s Life
Annie Proulx, The Shipping News
Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping
James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, The Complete Stories (esp the Erendira collection)
Elizabeth Bishop, The Complete Poems
Junot Diaz, Drown
Jamaica Kincaid, “On Seeing England for the First Time” (great for tone)
Raymond Carver, Where I’m Calling From
Grace Paley, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute