Wednesday, August 05, 2009

First novels, Race, and the MFA

I was about 100 pages into Jessie Redmon Fauset’s There is Confusion (1924) when Short Girls came. Both are great stories of young people striving in the face of racism, but only Nguyen’s is an easy, lovely read. Both Fauset and Nguyen show their characters experiencing and, as important, reflecting on racism. Both women take a deep interest in helping—it does feel like that’s the right verb even though it’s slightly absurd—their female characters find both love and work that will fulfill them.

When I finished Short Girls, I returned to Fauset and, somehow, really got involved in the story and finished it with great pleasure. Still, it cannot be said that this, Fauset’s first novel, is flawless: it’s overplotted, it’s got too many characters; it’s too talky in parts.

I kept thinking about the difference it would have made if Fauset had an MFA. I don’t think MFAs can create talent, but they do seem to help writers prune their manuscripts, think about their audience, focus their purpose. This is a somewhat disheartening conclusion, and I want my literature great more than competent, but, over and over again while reading Fauset, I would think, oh! If some fellow reader, if some instructor, could have helped her smooth that over, edit that out, how much better this book would be.

Amazing the difference that those 80 years have made.

UPDATED to say: What I wanted to add here is that Fauset herself knows this: there is an incredibly affecting scene late in the book. The protagonist has finally gotten her dream job, dancing in a Broadway show. It's an integrated cast and the exposure brings her, for the first time, into a bohemian group of friends, many of them white. She wonders at their accomplishments: how can they have done so much when she's been dancing all this while. Then she thinks back over all the time she's spent overcoming obstacles put in her way by racism: finding the dancing teacher who would teach black students; getting him to agree to a special class when white students refused an integrated one; finding 10 other black dancers to join her, etc. She things ruefully about all she would have done had she not had to beat down her own path.

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