RIP, Richard Stern

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.

40 Comments on “RIP, Richard Stern”

  1. Higher education is so often wasted on the young. We tend to learn the wrong things, ignore the possibilities or focus on just getting a grade when we go to school at that time of our lives. It’s too bad that it’s the natural time in the progression of our lives to go.

  2. That’s a wonderful quote from Mr. Stern at the end of the obit — “I was a has-been before I’d been a been,” he often said.

    What was the story the other girl wrote in your class? The one you liked so much you still have a copy?

  3. Wow. Beautiful insight on the proctective arrogance of the inexperienced and insecure. Summed up my college experience as well.

  4. No worries. Just curious. :)

    Would enjoy reading more of your university days if you ever choose to write of them.

  5. When I was an engineering undergrad at Johns Hopkins back in the early ’80s, I took a few courses in the writing seminars department. The instructors were grad students, who were actually very good. Famous names like John Barth and John Irwin didn’t make an appearance, but we did have a few visiting lecturers, including Don Barthelme.

    Anyway, I thought I wanted to be a writer, but given the Zeitgeist, I wasn’t even sure about my judgment of what constituted good writing. So one afternoon I had a talk with my instructor, and I said my favorite writing wasn’t by people like Ellis or McInerney, but more along the lines of John Irving, in mainstream fiction, and Borges or Lem or Garcia Marquez, in fantastical fiction. The instructor assured me that this was all serious writing as well. I was happy to hear that.

  6. Typo? Presumably “I am the only publisher author” should be “… only published author”

  7. It’s funny how similarly we feel about our experiences with creative writing teachers–and classmates. I had the good fortune to attend the University of Pittsburgh undergraduate writing program, in the late 1990s when Michael Chabon, who was Pitt alumni, was starting to catch on. All of my classmates were there because of Chabon, and were trying their best to rewrite “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh.” I, with my finger directly on the pulse as always, had never heard of the guy. I’ve since read some of his stuff, and quite enjoyed it, but at the time I didn’t even know where I was.

    My senior seminar was with a professor Chabon had been close with, and even based a character on. Once again, I knew nothing about this at the time. On our first day of class, he gave us three pieces of student fiction to review, two of which he later revealed were written by Chabon as a college student. I wish I’d held onto them, because they were awful. Which is encouraging.

    I remember spending 90% of time in my college writing classes silently arguing against what I heard, and 10% of it learning, which is a shame. I probably learned a tiny fraction of what my instructors, and probably most of my classmates, could have taught me.

    But hey, I still got that piece of paper…. whatsitcalled, a “degree.” ;-)

  8. John — longtime troll and reader of your fiction and blog. Your writing course experience was similar to my own at George Mason (near Washington, DC), where the instructor began the semester with “I do not want to see any genre fiction.” And, this was 1991, my peers were still drawing on Ellis and had not yet discovered David Foster Wallace, or creamed themselves over Chuck Palahniuk. Me–I broke the rules and tried my own pastiche of Thieves’ World meets the Wild Cards, and at least had the satisfaction of the instructor’s #facepalm! But–I wonder–have you by any chance at all read Douglas Winter’s short stories “Less Than Zombie” and “Bright Lights, Big Zombie” in Skipp and Specter’s Book of the Dead (1 + 2)? [yes, not SF, but given your old musical tastes, I’d figure your for straying into splatterpunk a few times. If I am wrong, I believe you will find them amusing.]

  9. I had a friend in my first go-round in college (a few years earlier than JS’s) whose critical analysis of Frank Herbert and Dune sent the prof into an absolute rage and got a C-minus – not for its content, but for choosing to do it on a SF work.

    My own critical analysis in the same class, with the same prof, a year or two later, got an A. The author in question was Douglas Adams.

    They occasionally learn.

  10. Long long ago, in the year 1991… The reason I went for the MA, rather than the MFA, was the prejudice against “genre” (as if literary fiction isn’t its own genre? Please) among the professors. I wasn’t brave enough to fight that battle. Even now, at the university where I teach, I see a lot of nose-wrinkling in the creative writing department at SF&F, and especially horror, because they are “popular” genres, even though (or because?) a lot of the MFAs themselves consume spec-fic media.

    My one undergrad creative writing teacher (a grad student himself) never said a word against spec-fic; he seemed surprised, but not horrified, to see my Gibson-wannabe cyberpunk. He liked the pacing. He taught me how to write dialog. He was the first non-friend/relative to suggest that I didn’t suck as a writer, and to actually care about how I wrote, rather than what, and I wish I remembered his name so I could thank him for that.

  11. A lot of fiction writers (generalizing across genres) without good character writing, but I can’t think of a lot of writers who can do really good characters that aren’t successful.

    Discouraging people in writing classes from genres may attempt to focus them on that, but my only creative writing class at the college level was IN a genre, so what do I know. At the time I was better at feature / journalism / nonfic than fictional characters (probably still am).

    Separately, there is a small growing academic speculative fiction analysis / criticism community, including plenty of PhDs in it, some professors, etc.

  12. Creative Writing classes…. Oh, my, Creative Writing classes. I was a mass comm/English double major, and fancied myself a bit of a writer back in the day, so took a lot of Creative Writing classes. What did I learn? I learned to figure out what the teacher liked and write that. One teacher liked really weird, surreal, stream-of-consciousness stuff, so that’s what I wrote. Another liked more concrete, down-to-earth descriptions, so that’s what I wrote. Another liked you to find really weird connections between things – I still remember him reading my comparison of J. Alfred Prufrock to the tenets of Celtic mythology aloud in class, an essay I had written mostly as a joke out of frustration with the low grades he kept giving me. He loved it. *shakes head* One liked us to write really long sentences, with lots of subclauses and extra phrases, and if the sentence lasted an entire paragraph, then so much the better for him. So that’s what I wrote.

    What did I learn about myself? i’m a pretty damned good parrot, but creative? Not so much. I’m an editor, now, and quite happy with this turn of circumstances…

    Thanks for the memories… Sounds like this guy was a corker. You were fortunate!

  13. I’m that annoying student that continually fights my teachers for the right to read and write genre fiction. In 12th grade English we got to pick small groups to do a book club-type thing the first two weeks of class, and I talked a group of other students into reading Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. My teacher nearly didn’t let us do it–she didn’t think it was “literary enough” and was sure we wouldn’t be able to discuss it in any kind of depth. I wore her down eventually, but the way she just assumed it was shallow because it wasn’t straight-up by-the-book literary fiction still ticks me off.

    and two years ago in college my short fiction creative writing prof told us we could write whatever we wanted for the final short story in the class–and then turned down my proposal to write science fiction because, quote, “science fiction’s about worldbuilding and not character.” I did go to office hours and fight him on that one. I basically had to write my entire story for him right then and there in his office, but at least I got to write it.

  14. Creative Writing Workshops are still clogged with stories about drugs and relationship drama. I was a published journalist many times over when I started grad school, so I was seen as a sell-out hack by my fellow students. I did read some good stories by a fellow student named Alex Jennings. He turned out to be a Clarion West grad, and one of his short stories is going to be included in a collection I successfully Kickstarted. I think that workshop was successful for me because of that one contact.

  15. Ah yes, being young…

    A friend who met me at 19 recently told me he thought I would not make it to age 30 [I am 54 now]. He felt someone would shoot me for my big mouth. Sadly I think he was right, but I am 54! I tease him about being 72 now, so I can still be a brat. I am somewhat mellower now…

    Welcome to the brat club John…

  16. I very much appreciate the perspective of this remembrance. But I think that OMW was a fitting submission. It remains your strongest work, in my opinion (even if it is unapologetically scifi). Best foot forward, etc.

  17. Fascinating reminiscences from everyone here — great stuff! Stewing in envy here, because neither of the universities I attended back in the day offered any creative writing courses at all. :(

  18. I recently started an MFA program titled Writing Popular Fiction. It’s at a small catholic school in Greensburg, PA, called Seton Hill. We discussed the whole literary fiction vs genre fiction angst that is out there in most creative writing courses across the country and whether or not writing creatively can be taught. It was refreshing to see a staff of collegiate facutly who seem to get it. I was a moron in my late teens and early twenties and only interested in getting things done so I would have more time to chase girls and drink alcohol. I think we are close in age, John, I graduated HS in 82, and with some miles on my body and soem wear and tear on my psyche, I’m in a better better frame of mind to learn things now. Thanks for sharing that memory.

  19. Interesting to read this piece after having read Wil Wheaton’s somewhat similar bit yesterday:

    Never took creative writing. Tested out of English 101. English 102 (Comp.) was an easy B. Got my best grade on a paper that was plagiarized. 100%. From myself. Took an essay I’d written in high school (and gotten a B on), retyped it, turned it in, and got an A.

  20. “I was a young jackass” stories – I ‘ve got enough of them to fill a book. (One that has never been written and never will as long as I still have blackmail material on XXXX, YYYY, and especially ZZZZ!)

    About the only benefit of being young is that it is curable. Though wisdom may not come with age (witness the US Congress), at least the propensity to do truly stupid stuff decreases. Some. from time to time.

  21. Writing class at university was one of the few that emphasized deadlines almost as much as content. Not even being named T.C. Boyle would help you if you’re paper was 3 minutes late. For columns and news articles I can clearly see that holding the press is going to irritate the flat hats in production. Just curious, but as a novel writing author how do deadlines affect your work?

  22. Huh. It’s ‘I was an arrogant young bastard” week on my blog feed. Between you and Wil Wheaton, in any case.

  23. I had a very similar experience back in 1989 at UC (the one in the midwest where we eat greek chili on hot dogs and english majors go to die), Such treatment is part and parcel of the negative experience that led me to drop out.
    Also, I couldn’t type, fucking dyslexia…;(

  24. I had an English teacher who despaired of my science fiction short stories – she was one of those people who said that if it was science fiction, it wasn’t good, and if it was good, it wasn’t science fiction. I used to retaliate by telling her that Hemingway (her favourite) wrote books that were just well-written Commando comics.

  25. “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”
    — Mark Twain

  26. I learned in Creative Writing class to write what the prof liked to read. She of course hated the fantastical stories (and in fact marked “wrong” a few words that she didn’t understand rather than looking them up in the damn dictionary – wtf?) but when I went all surrealist on her, she ate it up. So I just wrote surrealist stuff and vowed not to bother taking her next course.

  27. I never got to take creative writing in university; I never got accepted into the course. Ironically, I think of the people I did know who did get in, I’m the only published writer (non-fiction and poetry, alas), and the only one who writes for a living (I’m a technical writer).

    That said, in my final year in university, I took a course in “Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Other Forms of Romance,” which was interesting enough. The TA who led my tutorial section for that class handed back my final essay with the remark “You’ve been a pain in the ass all year. Keep it up.” He was delighted to learn I was continuing on to graduate school.

    John K. Fulton, I adore your snotty description of Hemingway almost as much as I loathe Hemingway. Well done, bravo bravissimo, kol hakavod, and other hits from the same album!

  28. A great “in memoriam.” Personally, I think as long as the lesson is learned – eventually – most teachers forgive those who don’t get it right away. Ego is the biggest, broadest, and thorniest barrier to learning.

  29. I think you should lose a bit of the guilt, man. Why would you feel bad about Young John Scalzi’s arrogance thinking he was the best writer in the room when, in retrospect, he probably was? Given what you do in comparison to any teen-angst ennui mope story, it is in evidence that your teacher was simply wrong.

    So go ahead and change your narrative on this. It’s OK.

  30. I was at the U of C in the early 1980s for an M.A. I met Stern briefly, gave him a copy of two or my short stories as examples of my work. They were both private eye stories, very Ross MacDonald-influenced. Probably very bad attempts at angst-ridden LA noir. Anyway, I never heard from him again. A friend of mine did take his class, and seemed to be traumatized by it, so I was kind of glad I wasn’t there. Still, you’ve got to kind of respect the man. And I respect you for sticking it out.

  31. Well, I knew I wasn’t the best writer in the room back then– because I got lucky enough when Stephen King came to UMO to teach for a year. We had our writing seminars, sometimes in his living room. There was no snobbery about genre, natch, just the work had to be trying to tell a story as well as you could, and you had to write a lot. He helped us get better, with practical, down-to-earth examples.and good critiques of what you’d done. His work isn’t for everyone but he can write (a lot) and he taught us well. After all these years, I’m finally putting his advice to good use! Thank goodness for some writing classes! Sorry that some folks hit the lit snobs.

  32. Anybody who can figure out how to be humble enough to learn but arrogant enough not to be ground down will have adolescence and young adulthood nailed. Most of us stumble along the best we can.

    “someone who had some facility for dialogue but not much of an idea for how people talked” — I don’t get it. These seems to me to be the same thing.

  33. I think I took that class with you. There were at least four undergraduates in that class, out of about eight students. I’m afraid I didn’t get a lot out of that class either – I’d been writing the kind of “serious” fiction that he seemed to be looking for, but there appeared to be no room for experimentation and found no concrete feedback to use in a next draft. I spent so much time trying to get my writing “right” that it sucked the joy right out of the process. As it turns out, I haven’t yet read anything of his that I really liked, so it seems that we were never suited. I think your “undergraduate guilt” at not really getting a lot out of his class is misplaced. Either we would find value in his class, or we wouldn’t, and after a point there was nothing we could do about it. (BTW, now that I’ve read it, he was totally out of line when he told you that “Maus” wasn’t literature.)

  34. You went to college to study…writing?

    Writing is an art that needs little formal education and lots of, you know, experience.

    It’s not like science or math that are both highly-structured disciplines that require a student spend many years under the tutelage and mentoring of a more seasoned member of the field.

    Writing is an art, either you got it or you have to work on it.

  35. Scorpius:

    If you’re speaking to me specifically, I didn’t go to college to study writing (I left with a degree in philosophy), and in a general sense I agree that especially on the undergraduate level, it’s best not to major in creative writing or any such thing. But I also don’t see a class or two on the subject as problematic. The U of C also had a different writing class — “Little Red Schoolhouse,” which was a composition class — which was very helpful for a number of my classmates (I did not take it myself).

    Most of my college writing was at the newspaper, first the college one and then freelance at the Sun-Times and some of the alternative papers in the city. I agree that practical experience is an excellent teacher when it comes to writing.

  36. I took Stern at UC way back in 1977. I also was young and self-inflated, but even in retrospect I believe Prof. Stern was older and self-inflated. I believe there was a reason his writing didn’t seem to touch people the way great or even good writing should. Someone who spends his entire career in academia and is called a “writer’s writer” is likely to be root-bound in thinking and communicating. That’s how I remember Stern, and how I still regard him.

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