‘Class Struggle’ was shortlisted for the 2021 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.
Bathed in moonlight, his steed approached her in the shadows of the drooping conifers as she stood at her campfire, stoking it with a fire-stoking implement. She looked up, awoken from reverie by the sound of hooves cracking dried branches, to see the horsebacked man with his swarthy complexion and muscular torso. An Adonis visiting her in the still of night – her fantasy! She bade him to dismount from the stallion to stand next to her and she saw that he was tall and dark and handsome. She tentatively caressed the seams of his tunic. He stood motionless like a Greek statue. She moved her fingers to his sensuous lips and moved closer to him, guiding his hands to the small of her back, and suddenly they were in fevered embrace, their bodies intertwined, his glistening loins rubbing against hers, she was overcome by feelings of rapturous intensity, inviting him to go further, further, begging him, until he was engorged and they rejoiced together in honeyed ecstasy.
The assignment was to write a 250 word story about someone who has lost their car keys. Perhaps you feel you have conveyed, with magisterial subtlety, that in the throes of passion the horseman’s tunic was discarded irretrievably in the underbrush, his car keys along with it, even though he has a horse and is dressed like someone from the Middle Ages? You have not.
Even if I could forgive the story its insipid content and florid prose, I cannot overlook that it is nonsense. The rider is simultaneously “bathed in moonlight” and “in the shadows of the drooping conifers.” He is either lit or in shadow, not both. He wears a tunic, yet the woman can discern the musculature of his torso, doubly invisible because of the shadow of the flaccid larch hanging over him. Modifiers are misplaced. Phrasing is hackneyed. Content is drivel.
These grade reports are not meant to be cruel. They are meant to help you to write. You are behind the other students in the class, so I am giving you an additional assignment. If you complete it, I will replace your failing grade. You cannot write complex sentences until you can write simple ones. So that is your assignment: write a 250-word story about someone losing their car keys, using only simple sentences.
Example of what to do: Lamorak stepped out of his car. He dropped his car keys. They fell into the sewer.
Example of what not to do: As Lamorak’s footfall made bare imprint on the sidewalk as he extracted himself from his sleek black limousine, a troupe of street urchins animatedly chanting vulgar limericks surrounded him, dancing about, and he dropped his keys into a sewer grating. “Rapscallions! I have been divested of my car keys, do fetch mine halberd so I might extricate aforesaid key ring from the deeps of the grotto!”
Assignment #1 resubmission: Charlie was hungry. Charlie liked chocolate. Chocolate is sweet. It is delicious. Charlotte had chocolate. Charlie begged her. “Give me chocolate.” “No!” Charlotte replied. Charlie was sad. He was angry. And hungry, still. Charlie ruminated. He cogitated. He ideated. He schemed. Briefly, he planned. “I know. I will kill.” Charlie killed Charlotte. He ate chocolate. He was happy. It didn’t last! He got hungry. “I need more!” Charlie roamed. He killed again. And again. He stabbed. He garotted. He shot. He mauled. He maimed. He poisoned. He guillotined. He accumulated chocolate. “All of it! I want it!” Charlie expected happiness. He had everything. All the chocolate. “I am sad. Why?” Charlie wondered. Charlie met Charline. “She is beautiful. Wow,” Charlie thought. He felt engorged. A new feeling. “I like this. Wow,” he thought. He forgot chocolate. He wanted Charline. She liked Charlie. She had lust. His taut body. Her supple flesh. Their bodies convolved. She engulfed him. They felt joy. They felt pleasure. They felt rapture. Honeyed ecstasy. They were happy. For a moment. Then, crushing sadness. Charlie felt hungry. He killed Charline. Ate more chocolate. It helped. A little.
Examiner’s Report: Assignment #1 (resubmission)
Where, pray tell, are the goddamn car keys.
Dear Professor Crabwick,
As you point out, the car keys are missing. That was the assignment. What did I do wrong?
There is a purpose to this exercise, which you apparently fail to grasp. Given a free choice of topic, students will write about triple agents plotting to steal nuclear submarine blueprints that have been tattooed on the soles of the feet of a smuggler incarcerated in a supermax facility, or, as seems your wont, about cliffside trysts between mute pirates and inarticulate minxes. You can’t write about Troilus and Cressida in the orchard if you can’t write about someone misplacing a key ring.
You were not in class today, so I am sending you the second assignment brief by email. I hope you’ll use this as a further opportunity to practice simple sentence structures.
Assignment #2: You want to be a writer. You probably have a goal, an ambition, a dream – do you want to write pulpy noir fiction sold in airports worldwide? Do you want to be flown off to Stockholm in a private jet to accept your Nobel? Whatever your goal, imagine you achieve it, your dream comes true. Picture that future. Write about it.
The goal of this assignment is to help me help you. If I know what you’re trying to accomplish, I can lay the cobblestones on the road for you. This assignment will not be graded.
Assignment #2: My dream as a writer is basking in a catamaran in the Mediterranean dreaming up the plot of a new bestselling romance novel when the boat crashes into a reef and capsizes and I am swept ashore unconscious only to be discovered by a Corsican fisherman with sculpted biceps and ruddy complexion, and when he presses his lips to mine to awaken me, he awakens also in me a primordial sea of passionate desires I did not know existed and I am drowning in thirsty anticipation and we retire together to a secret cove and experience together honeyed ecstasy. I do not want to write about car keys. Or feminism.
Assignment #3: Through this assignment, I want you to learn how word choice can personalize a story. Compare the two paragraphs below:
Clichéd version: Tyler was carrying a box of dishware to the car. “Need a hand with that?” Pleiades asked. “No, it’s light as a feather” Tyler answered. “But I’m so famished, I could eat a horse.” “We need to gas up the car anyway, if we eat at the Shell station we can kill two birds with one stone.”
A more original version (from my debut novel): Tyler was carrying a box of dishware to the car. “Need a hand with that?” Pleiades asked. “No, it’s light as a Sicilian summer” Tyler answered. “But I’m so famished, I could eat these plates.” “We need to gas up the car anyway, if we eat at the Shell station we can fuel two engines with one trip.”
Fill in the blanks to make the above story individual, your own. Aim for vividness and consistency.
Assignment #3: Tyler was carrying a box of dishware to the car. “Need a hand with that?” Pleiades asked. “No, it’s light as a light bulb” Tyler answered. “But I’m so famished, I could eat a salad without taking the croutons off it.” “We need to gas up the car anyway, if we eat at the Shell station we can cordon off two crime scenes with one roll of police tape.”
Assignment #3: I don’t think you’re taking this class seriously. I will let you resubmit if you want to.
Assignment #4: Some of the best writing advice you’ll ever get is “write what you know.” Write a 250 word story about a recent day in your life that was eventful in some way.
Assignment #4: I wake up. I cry some. I get dressed. Go to school. Try to, anyway. Car won’t start. Take the bus. Step in urine. Pool of it. On bus floor. I cry more. No one cares. I look around. Everyone looks away. Get off bus. Arrive at school. Creative writing class. Sit at front. Trying to learn. Three step plan. Keep it simple. Write short sentences. Become romance novelist. Trying to learn. Not good yet. Professor starts lecturing. About writing metaphors. Professor is published! Short story collection. One long novel. About which, “has all the charm of your average software manual, and half of the wit,” said the New York Times. “There is an exciting new voice in American letters,” said Publishers Weekly, “but it is not Ken Crabwick.” And that’s him, this pretentious hack, standing there with my story in his hand, waving it around, teaching the class not to use “tired metaphors” and “stale clichés,” the irony eludes him, and he’s reading aloud from the pages, my pages, “tall and dark and handsome” he says and a few people behind me snicker, he reads out “his sensuous lips” and there is more laughter, “his swarthy complexion and muscular torso” and the class erupts. “Do not write like this,” he warns the class as the bell rings. Return to car. Forgot – no car. Leave parking lot. Walk to bus. Someone threw up. Bus stop disgusting. Cry some more. No one cares. Bus is late.
Assignment #3 (resubmitted): Tyler was carrying a box of dishware to the car. “Need a hand with that?” Pleiades asked. “No, it’s light as a Beretta Nano” Tyler answered. “But I’m so famished, I could eat a hamburger and poison another.” “We need to gas up the car anyway, if we eat at the Shell station we can behead two creative writing teachers with one guillotine.”
Examiner’s Report: Final Grade: F
The Appeals Board has considered the above-submitted documentation, which constitutes a complete record of Tana Fortuna’s coursework and Professor Crabwick’s corresponding examiner reports from Prof. Crabwick’s Introduction to Creative Writing course, held this fall term. The Board expresses its appreciation to Ms. Fortuna for appearing before us, and for the many accommodations she has needed to make to comply with the strictures of the restraining order Prof. Crabwick has obtained against her.
The Board weighed all of the claims and counterclaims in this case. Ms. Fortuna’s claim of gender bias seems to this panel to have been made purely of convenience, given the attitude she expresses towards feminism in “Assignment #2.” Ms. Fortuna’s contention, that she writes “in a woman’s voice” about “feminine concerns,” and that her work could thus not be fairly evaluated by Prof. Crabwick, who is a man, is fraught on its face, and was one this Board had no wish to entertain. But in the interests of impartial justice, it was given due consideration. The panel deferred to our resident intersectional feminist critic (a critic who is an intersectional feminist, not a critic of intersectional feminists) who posed a question that proved decisive: “is this a joke?” Ms. Fortuna’s claim of gender bias was thus judged to be without merit.
Ms. Fortuna made a second claim, subject to counterclaim by Prof. Crabwick, that the Professor displayed towards her animus of unspecified provenance, and was thus biased in his evaluation of her work. The panel dismissed Ms. Fortuna’s claim of non-specific bias for want of supporting evidence. That her writing was “held up to ridicule” in class was not considered dispositive; illustrating course content with examples from student submissions is standard pedagogical practice, and does not, in and of itself, demonstrate much of anything. If appellant’s work had instead been lauded by the Professor before the class, we would not now be considering revising her grade downwards because of some positive bias the Professor had displayed towards her.
Ms. Fortuna further contended that her work was so patently meritorious that her grade should be revised upwards. In support of her claim, she submitted three novels, issued by a well-known publisher in the area of historical romance fiction, “Pioneers in Passion”, “Frontier Orgy”, and “Bandido Bordello.” Some of the more prurient passages Ms. Fortuna had helpfully highlighted in yellow. Ms. Fortuna invited the Board to compare her coursework with these novels. Noting their considerable commercial success, she contended that “if the standard of writing in my assignments even approaches that of these bestselling books, then I deserve a passing grade.” Prof. Crabwick submitted affidavits from two published novelists (both rather poorly reviewed in every major newspaper the Board looked at, we note in passing) attesting that Ms. Fortuna’s class submissions “demonstrate no talent whatever for writing, creative or otherwise.”
The claim of merit proved difficult to adjudicate. In discussion, the literature professor on our panel, a renowned expert on Pinget and Butor, described Fortuna’s submissions as “vapid hog manure” (“fumier de porc insipide” in his original French; unfortunately it is unclear in the original language if it is the manure or the pig that is “vapid”). Our resident neo-Kantian, citing principles of symmetry and economy, replied that Fortuna’s writing was, objectively speaking, more beautiful than that of Prof. Crabwick (whose first novel he described as “unreadably pretentious”). Our sociologist, a Bourdieu specialist, dismissed both of the above-described opinions, arguing that they were expressions of taste, which are mere manifestations of class difference, and that the two experts were both, perhaps unwittingly, advancing ideas that undergird a bourgeois distinction between low and high culture used only to perpetually subjugate the working classes who have limited access to formal education. This prompted our panel’s Trotskyite to shout “right on, comrade!” and to start singing Svridov’s “Oratorio Pathetique” and other Soviet propaganda songs. This seemed to displease several other members of the Board, and the panel was then sidetracked by an acrimonious political discussion not germane to the issues under consideration. Finally our resident Bakunin biographer offered, unhelpfully, “who cares, just let the student decide what grade she wants.”
The question was finally put to vote, and a majority of the panel abstained. By rule, when a vote is inconclusive (as in this case, as there was no quorum), the Chair casts the decisive vote. I based my decision on three considerations:
. appellant’s coursework was often written in comprehensible English
. appellant’s coursework was occasionally responsive to the assignment prompts
. there is a risk that if appellant were to fail this course, she could retake it and we would need to repeat this process at the end of next semester
On that basis, Panel determines that Ms. Fortuna’s grade for Introduction to Creative Writing be revised to a D-
Examiner’s Report: What a quandary! There are objective criteria I use to evaluate your assignments. But what can I do when you’ve made your two protagonists bad writers, and your appeals panel writes like an appeals panel? Am I to forgive every solecism, every infelicitous word choice, every off-the-shelf phrase?
I don’t think so. When you adopt the voice of a bad writer, you can make their bad writing worth reading. A badly written passage can still convey time and place, sights and sounds. It can still be vivid and immersive. In your story about Charlie and the chocolate, I can scarcely find a concrete noun. We might be in Hades or we might be in Legoland. Your appeals panel report offers nothing for the eye or for the imagination. At least your bus stop is pungent.
Then there is the story. Does it make any impression on the reader? Was I moved? No. I am a professional. I approach student evaluation with steadfast emotional detachment. I am utterly indifferent to your protagonist and her whining about grades that she clearly deserved.
The panel discussion about feminism does not absolve you of your responsibility to think about gender representation. When your Professor rails against cliché, it is perhaps ironic (at least if the Professor’s views are your own) that your story concludes with one of the most tired tropes. Of all the dénouements you could have written – Fortuna could stand up to her Professor when he tries to humiliate her in front of the class, Fortuna could change her Major to Astrophysics, Fortuna could abandon her frivolous interest in airport romance novels and become a respected writer of literature – you have chosen to make Fortuna into the archetypal “hysterical woman” that Smith-Rosenberg writes so eloquently about. Nesting this stereotype in a postmodern matryoshka doll of a structure does not make it any more acceptable.
I did wonder, while reading, if the story is meant to be funny. I laughed out loud once, at the Kafkaesque idea that there might be an Appeals Board that would reconsider a student’s grade. Ha! What a nightmare that would be! In case, after reading this report, you might decide to look into it, I’ll save you the time: at this university, no such thing exists.
Final Grade: D+
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