by John Edgar Wideman
from the January 22, 2018 issue of The New Yorker
John Edgar Wideman has been publishing since the late 1960s. It seems he really hit the pinnacle of his critical acclaim in the 1980s and 1990s, picking up not one but two PEN Faulker Award, an American Book Award, the Rea Award for the Short Story, and an O’Henry Award, as well nominations for a National Book Critics Circle Award and a National Book Award. He’s published only one novel in the past couple of decades, but he has put out a couple of collection of stories. Unfortunately for me, I have not read any of his work. Have any of you? How is it? Please let us know!
Despite his past reception, it appears “Writing Teacher” is the fist piece of Wideman’s fiction The New Yorker has published (he has written three pieces for the magazine). I’m assuming it is taken from his forthcoming collection, American Histories, which will be published in March. “Writing Teacher” certainly has me interested. It’s got a premise that is easy to grasp, but it’s charged and I’m still not sure all that it’s saying.
Wideman himself has been a writing teacher, and I love how he begins this story:
I hear from my former students occasionally. A few have gone on to accomplish remarkable work. Hear equally from the ordinary and, remarkable. Requests for recommendations, announcements of new jobs, marriages, children, a photo, copy of a book or film script, story in a magazine or anthology, perhaps inscribed personally to me or sent directly from the publisher. The gift of a snapshot, book, or story meant to break silence that settles in after they leave the university, the silence that being here, a student for a semester in my fiction-writing class, doesn’t break, silence of living ordinary lives we all endure whether our writing is deemed remarkable by others or not.
It continues nicely, with the writing teacher trying to push a current student from her story that “begins and ends stuck in the midst of an apparently insoluble quandary,” one that is “a well-intentioned display of good intentions,” “a dreary recital of a plight suffered by countless young, underprivileged women,” to one that can “aid actual people.”
The young woman who has written this story “betrays no trace of colored-people’s color,” which is, the writing teacher says, “[m]y color, by the way.”
I think that’s a great premise for a story, especially given recent conversations we’ve had about whether a white writer can or should try to write a story about someone of a different race: “Is it O.K. to borrow another’s identity in order to perpetrate a good deed.” But “Writing Teacher” goes in quite another direction, incorporating the writing teacher’s own sense of fatigue and wariness, his own desire to “help” this student. After all, does his desire to “teach” her the error of her ways come from the same misconceptions, create some of the same problems?
You could say the text is what I desire to help or say that the fact she’s written a text intended to help other people is why I want to help her. None of the above helps much, you might be thinking. World remains as it is — resistant, opaque, you may also be thinking, and is the “you” I’m imagining the same presumptive “you” her story calls out in its initial sentence.
And there’s a latent violence to the story that is unsettling, giving it that charge I mentioned above.
Having read it just once, I’m not sure all that it is saying, but I think it’s well done and that the conversations it instigates will be fascinating. I’m hoping that in the comments you can help me understand a lot of the nuance going on, as well as the implications. I look forward to reading your thoughts!