The trouble with creative writing programs

I recently read a chunk of manuscript by a woman in my novel-writing workshop. In her accompanying note, she explained that her novel-in-progress is narrated in alternating sections by five women: a grandmother, her two daughters, and her two granddaughters.

There is no rule against writing a novel along these lines. It's possible to imagine this turning out to be a very good novel. But if you were talking to a first-time novelist who told you this was her plan, you might want to say something like: "Wow, that's a lot of narrators! It sounds like it would be a real challenge for the reader to keep track of them, especially if they're all of the same gender and background. Have you thought about how you're going to deal with that? Are you 100% sure you need all five of them to narrate? Have you considered writing in third-person close, where you can shift from one character's point of view to another's without reassigning the "I" pronoun every time?"

And yet I have not met a single instructor who says things like this. Instead they tend to say things like, "Well, that sounds very interesting," and then focus the discussion on particular scenes or characters.

I suspect there are several reasons for this failure to talk about problems with the way students conceive their projects: the sincere belief that there are no fixed rules for fiction writing; respect for the experimental impulse; fear of pooh-poohing a contemporary Ulysses or To the Lighthouse; the wish to be encouraging. Those are all valid. But they're often accompanied by a certain wilful blindness to context. The author of this five-narrators novel doesn't see herself as writing experimental work; she admires mainstream North American realists like Alice Munro and Marilynne Robinson. She wants to write a transparent and affecting story about three generations of women for a literate popular audience. She's just starting out and, like all of us, she could use some help. And yet her teachers decline to tell her things that could save her months or years of work.

James Wood, my current #1 literary crush, recently wrote: "We have become fixated on one kind of intelligence -- the theoretical, the analytical, the cultural -- at the expense of other kinds.... Put it this way: I'll accept that Richard Powers is terrifically smart if you'll admit with me that Alice Munro is also terrifically smart." Wood's general point, that there are different kinds of intelligence that might be useful to a fiction writer, is well taken. But there is a third kind of intelligence, crucial to writing, that Richard Powers and Alice Munro share. I'm talking about a kind of meta-intelligence, an ability to accurately assess one's own powers and weaknesses and to find literary forms that play to these. It's not just that Alice Munro is smart because of her keen grasp of human thought and motive and Richard Powers is smart because of his gift for understanding cultural systems and the role of individuals within them; it's that they're both smart because they've found ways to translate their different kinds of intelligence into functioning novels and stories. It's this third kind of intelligence that creative writing instructors can reasonably aspire to teach, because teaching it wouldn't exclude anyone or cram anyone into someone else's mold. I wish they'd be a bit more aggressive about teaching it.