There’s an obit in the New York Times for author Richard Stern, who passed away last week from cancer at the nicely advanced age of 84. Fans of literature will remember him (as the obit notes) as a somewhat obscure part of a coterie of writers which included Saul Bellow and Phillip Roth, the author of books like Golk, Stitch and Noble Rot, and the recipient of both the O. Henry award for short fiction and the Medal of Merit for the Novel. He also somewhat infamously panned the novel Catch 22 in the New York Times, a review which probably became as well known as his novels.
I remember Stern because when I was a first-year student at the University of Chicago, I somewhat arrogantly marched into his upper-level creative writing class and demanded to be let in; Stern, who I think among other things was amused at my impertinence and ego, allowed me to be in it, warning that he intended to cut me no slack. He lived up to his word on that, since of the several piece I turned in for the class, he liked only one, and that just mildly: A brief character piece about a grandfather who was disappointed in a grandson but was trying to hide it from the younger man, perhaps not successfully.
Remembering the pieces I turned in, Stern was unsurprisingly correct: The pieces were clever but not good, the work of someone who had some facility for dialogue but not much of an idea for how people talked. Inasmuch as this continues to be the direction in which my writing tends to fail, he was on to something. It’s a bit of a shame it took me nearly a decade after I left his class to clue in on this.
I had problems with Stern’s class. My first problem was that on the first day of class, Stern said to us that he wouldn’t be reading any science fiction stories, as he felt, basically, that they were childish and inauthentic. As a longtime reader of science fiction at that point, I bristled at that approximation (and, well, obviously, still do). I also suspect I know what he was trying to get at: he wanted the writers in the class to deal with people and character interactions, and a lot of student-level science fiction is focused on (supposedly) nifty futuristic ideas first, and people second. Fair enough, although I think (and continue to think) he was using science fiction as a stalking horse for the general idea of putting characters first.
My second problem was not about Stern, but about my classmates, whose stories drove me batty. This was late 1987, and Bret Easton Ellis’ Less Than Zero and Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City were all the rage, so the class was full of students sharing stories of dissolution, drug use and dorm room bisexuality. It wasn’t that I was opposed to any of those things, per se, just that they got awfully tiring to read about over and over (there was one girl who wrote something else; I liked it so much I begged for a copy of the story. I still have it). I remember snapping one class session and chewing out the rest of my classmates about their tiresome written exercises in ennui; they looked at me like I had sprouted a second head. I think I remember Stern grinning as I lost it, however.
(There is some irony in that as far as I know I am the only published author from that particular class. I remember sending Stern a copy of Old Man’s War, since I imagined it might annoy him that it was a science fiction novel. If I had to do it again, I’d send him Redshirts instead. Stern’s first novel, Golk, was about television’s more surreal aspects; I think he might find several points in common between our novels.)
In the end I didn’t get much out of the class, other than a strong belief that creative writing classes and I were destined not to agree with each other. For a fairly long period of time I suspected that Stern had not been a particularly good teacher; these days I suspect more that I was not a particularly good student. As a young writer I was very arrogant — even more so than now, without the attendant track record to back me up. If I could go back now I imagine I’d tell the younger me to relax and stop trying to suggest he was the most awesome writer in the room; I’m equally sure the younger me wouldn’t bother to listen. I was that guy. I know how I was.
Nevertheless, looking back I wish I had been a better student and had listened to what Stern had to say rather than focused on being an arrogant twit. I don’t know that it would have made me a better or worse writer in the grand scheme of things, but it seems a shame I mostly missed out on an opportunity to learn more from a writer held in such esteem by other writers. I hope I’m smarter, or at least less arrogant, now.