On writing fiction Joy Williams recently observed, “a novel wants to befriend you, a short story almost never.” She didn’t reveal her thoughts on the essay, but my belief is she considers this genre your best friend, as in the friend who tells the truth whether you want it or not.
Sometimes nice is what we want, but not what we need, and I find the greatest foe to undergraduate student essays is sentimentality. “But I don’t want to be mean,” students plead, as they argue for bland stories about roommates or touching family moments. That’s why my best friend in the classroom is Williams’s environmental rant, “Save the Whales, Screw the Shrimp.”
From sentence one, Williams pops the balloons of that special Disneyland vacation with Dad:
“I don’t want to talk about me, of course, but it seems as though far too much attention has been lavished on you lately — that your greed and vanities and quest for self-fulfillment have been catered to far too much.”
Right away she confronts the reader of selfishness, of destroying our ecology one tiny selfish comfort at a time. The class recoils from Williams—her dark humor doesn’t translate and her polemic puts them on the defensive. They begin to talk about how they hated this essay and how this author will never persuade anyone by alienating her readers. Sometimes, the students get pretty harsh.
Success! My nice students are no longer nice, aside from that one student with the Bad Brains T-shirt who totally gets it and wonders if she’s the only one, and she could be wrong, but she finds Williams funny? I want to throw this student a parade, but I play it cool for we’ve gotten to the next step: it’s time to examine why and how, exactly, Williams is so skilled at pissing us off.
1) Williams uses second person with conviction:
“You just want and want and want. You don’t believe in Nature anymore…Your eyes glaze as you travel life’s highway past all the crushed animals and Big Gulp cups.”
In composition classes, I ban second person because students use it as a crutch to avoid real claims. (You know what I mean.) When Williams uses second person, she means you, you there, washing down that In-n-Out Double-Double with a bucket-sized Diet Coke.
2) Exclamation points have became the default setting of texts and emails, used to convey false enthusiasm over trite conversations. Williams wields hers like a weapon:
“You don’t want to think about it!”
“Yes! If it weren’t for the people who kill them, wild ducks wouldn’t exist!”
3) Williams creates disruption through short, powerful sentences:
“And the word environment. Such a bloodless word. A flat-footed word with a shrunken heart.”
“Florida is crazy, it’s pink concrete. It’s paved, it’s over. And a little girl just got eaten by an alligator down there.”
“You’re eschewing cow.”
4) After zooming in to look at the details, it’s worth panning out, to examine her overall structure. What scaffolds the essay?
Williams moves from outright accusation, to an imaginary conversation between herself and the reader. As the reader claws her way through rationalizations and comforts Williams ousts them out, one by one, anticipating every move and blocking escape. She not only anticipates the reader’s counterarguments but implicates herself. By the end, there is nowhere for the reader or the author to hide.
I’ve taught “Save the Whales, Screw the Shrimp” alongside “Consider the Lobster” by David Foster Wallace. Both essays, after extensive mental journeys, conclude with the same plea for mindfulness, but Wallace’s ruminations are in stark contrast to Williams’s sawed off shotgun. Love or hate these writers, I tell my students, they have a distinctive style. Within a few sentences we know who they are, the literary version of “Name that Tune.”
Final hope: students might see voice is worth risking alienation.
Kelly Kathleen Ferguson is the author of My Life as Laura: How I Searched for Laura Ingalls Wilder and Found Myself. Her work has appeared in mental_floss magazine, Poets & Writers, The Gettysburg Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and other publications. She teaches creative writing at Southern Utah University.