English Majors Colloquium Considers “(Re)Visionary Writing”

On the evening of April 30, department faculty and senior English majors gathered in McCormick Hall for the annual English Majors Colloquium. Every year, the English majors of the senior class ask three professors to deliver brief talks on a theme; this year, Professors Anne Cheng, Diana Fuss, and Russ Leo addressed the theme of “(Re)Visionary Writing.”

The first speaker was Fuss, who discussed one of her favorite literary genres, variously known as “flash fiction,” the “short short story,” “minute fiction,” and “nanofiction,” among other monikers. Perhaps the most famous example of flash fiction is the six-word story “For sale: baby shoes, never worn,” often attributed to Ernest Hemingway. This story, said Fuss, condenses “the intensity of a family’s grief or disappointment” into the mundane form of a classified ad. Other short short stories draw on mythology or fairy tales in order to establish characters quickly. Fuss praised the genre for its openness to experimentation and its democratizing effect on fiction writing, though she noted that many short short stories feature “uninspired dialogue” and an overreliance on cleverness and puns. She speculated that the current popularity of flash fiction reflects our culture’s increasing reliance on technology, which correlates with decreasing attention spans. Fuss ended by proposing that it might be time to start referring to flash fiction simply as “the short story,” a genre that continually reinvents itself.

Next, Cheng presented an episode from her own life. Cheng is a longtime writer of poetry, though she decided early on that she would prefer a “bourgeois” existence with a steady income. In her early twenties, she began the exhausting process of searching for publishing jobs in New York City. One hot August afternoon, she took refuge in the air-conditioned New York Public Library, which was exhibiting a collection of famous poets’ first drafts. Cheng was simultaneously surprised and comforted by how “terrible” these drafts were, how ruthlessly the writers cut pages and pages of their own writing, and how dramatically a draft could change with the addition or subtraction of just one word. To illustrate this point, she showed the audience an image of Yeats’s early drafts of the sonnet “Leda and the Swan” (in which the awkward phrase “webbed toes” occurs repeatedly).

Finally, Leo discussed his favorite example of (re)visionary writing: the Clash’s triple album Sandinista! (1980), which was criticized at the time for its departure from the conventions of punk rock. The song “Up in Heaven (Not Only Here),” for instance, incorporates and distorts a lyric from the folk singer Phil Ochs’s protest song “United Fruit.” Recorded in New York and drawing on musical genres that the band encountered there, Sandinista! experiments with elements of reggae, disco, jazz, and early rap. The album’s title pays homage to Nicaragua’s Sandinista National Liberation Front, which the U.S. government would later conspire to overthrow. Leo confessed that “few things would make ten-year-old me happier than knowing that forty-year-old me could hold a room of people hostage and talk to them about the Clash.”

After a question-and-answer session that touched on such topics as mixed genres, the relationship between creative and academic writing, and the question of whether Bob Dylan is a true leftist or (in Leo’s opinion) “the poet laureate of neoliberalism,” the group adjourned for a dinner reception.