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The Glory of the Bad Idea

The Kenyon Review Credos

Whatever we do on the page, those of us who are both writers and teachers of beginning creative writing generally find ourselves emphasizing orthodoxies in the classroom: that someone or something should change. That characters should be round, or that stories need characters at all. That desire + obstacle = conflict = plot. We want students to get a grip on what a “literary” short story is, and then we want to help them write one with only the minimum required amount of pain and suffering.

I know fellow teachers who swear by pitch sessions, asking students to discuss a planned story with classmates, so problematic concepts can be troubleshot, fuzzy ideas sharpened. I understand the pedagogical reasons for these pitch sessions, and I don’t doubt the possibility of excellent results. Nevertheless, I can’t get over my philosophical and artistic objections: I have an unshakeable, quixotic faith in the bad idea. Many of my favorite moments as a reader, teacher, or editor are when a story surprises me by doing something I know (or think I know) shouldn’t work, and the author pulls it off.

What constitutes a bad idea is incredibly subjective, obviously. I’m thinking of writing that risks badness either via content or form, or both. Stories that break some basic craft commandment of traditional fiction writing; or that have a seemingly ridiculous, even potentially offensive, conceit; or that have been done so often that a fresh take feels impossible. Stories that you might brace yourself for, or roll your eyes at on the first page, only to wish the author were there at the end so you could give her a fist bump or high five. Stories whose formal techniques or scenarios, if presented in a class pitch session, frankly wouldn’t seem promising at all.

Much of a writer’s training is learning to tiptoe around such pits of compositional quicksand. However, I admire stories where the writer seems to have identified the quicksand, waded straight in, and somehow come out the other side. I take pleasure in wading in myself. As a writer, I love proving someone wrong, whether that’s an external someone or just my own self-doubt. There are many good, self-preserving reasons to tiptoe past the quicksand. But a less-good reason is fear of failure or fear of offending or boring a reader. You can’t control how your story will be read, but you can control how you write it, and your bad ideas may be the ones most worth pursuing.

I don’t want, in a pitch session, to steer a student away from something that might be extraordinary to something that will be competent. In our current cultural moment, I think competency is a particular enemy of the short story. It is easy, in an era of endless entertainment options, to accept smaller and smaller stretches of territory for our story kingdom. Car chases? Movies do them better. Intricate plots? Television. Multigenerational family stories? Novels. Dense, lyrical language? Leave it to the poets. But as a writer, the things that are difficult are the things I want to do, and I want to encounter work as a reader that takes the same attitude. I don’t want short story writers to willingly give up any more ground, to decide before they’ve begun that the story form just can’t encompass a densely lyrical, multigenerational suspense story. With a car chase.

In an otherwise positive review of a story collection by JF Powers, The Presence of Grace, Flannery O’Connor was dismayed to ponder “why, in two stories in this collection, he has seen fit to use a cat for the Central Intelligence. The cat in question is admirable, in his way. He has Mr. Powers’ wit and sensibility, his Faith and enough of his charity to serve, but he is a cat notwithstanding, and in both cases he lowers the tone and restricts the scope of what should otherwise have been a major story.” Yes—animal POV stories are notoriously bad ideas, and to say the cat stories seem less successful than Powers’ others is a reasonable observation for any reviewer to make. But I reject what seems to be her conviction that the very fact of the cat, regardless of how well it is executed, inevitably poisons the stories or their potential for being “major.” With reckless, unshakeable optimism I say: bring on the cats. Bring on your bad ideas. Wash off the quicksand, and make them sing.

More about The Kenyon Review Credos
In the early 1950s John Crowe Ransom, founding editor of The Kenyon Review, invited some of the most celebrated public intellectuals of the day, among them Northrop Frye, William Empson, and Leslie Fielder, to offer their personal credos on their professional philosophies and aspirations. (These essays, still fascinating, will be reprised on the KR website throughout 2014.) In marking The Kenyon Review’s 75th anniversary, sixteen poets, essayists, and fiction writers, authors who have published in our pages on our website from early in their careers, will present their own contemporary credos. Four will appear in the print journal and twelve in KROnline. —D.H.L.

Caitlin Horrocks
Caitlin Horrocks is author of the story collection This Is Not Your City. Her stories appear in the New Yorker, Best American Short Stories, PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, the Pushcart Prize, Paris Review, and elsewhere. She teaches at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and is fiction editor of The Kenyon Review.