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Stakes Not High Enough in Intro Fiction Story

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Written by Joe Krzyston

The uneasiness was palpable in a Miller Hall classroom today as Bailey Mann’s short story was analyzed and picked apart for incongruities in form and theme. The conclusion of his peers? The stakes were simply not high enough. Other critiques were delivered as well, with some students finding his setting (a fire escape behind a venue where a band had just played a show) alternatingly too boring or hard to believe, but it was this, the charge that the characters, should they fall, might not tumble very far, that brought the mounting tension to a head.

        “It’s not that I don’t like it,” said one student, a creative writing major with a double minor in ego and pretension, “but I just didn’t think the stakes were high enough. Like, why should I care about the characters, you know? What might happen? I just had a really hard time getting into the characters. I didn’t feel like I knew them.”

        Mr. Mann delivered a spirited rebuttal, saying that the stakes “…didn’t necessarily need to be high. Can’t fiction explore the everyday? The things we all live with? The things we all feel?” His sparring partner was not backing down, however, and pressed the offensive.

        “I get what you’re saying, but I feel that you owe it to the reader to make me care, you know?”

        After a while, Mr. Mann slipped into a numb fog, half-listening to the only person in the class who’d bothered to read his story at all tear it apart on entirely subjective grounds. Responding indirectly to a broader trend in literary studies of smug superiority of the reader to the text, Mr. Mann sighed, saying,

“Look man, I’m just trying to get some feedback, and if you’re not into it you’re not into it. But I just heard the same thing fifty-eight times, and I’m about one more vague critique away from rolling my own cigarettes, wearing a lot of black, talking about writing more frequently than I actually write, and just generally turning into a caricature of an English major.”

The students responsible for the critique were, at the end of class, vaguely satisfied with the deconstruction they’d performed, but they had a hard time articulating in full a reason for their satisfaction. When asked to provide a constructive alternative in the wake of their withering criticism, they told the Brackety-Ack they’d be in touch soon. That was a month ago.