Things You Will Learn From Spending A Day With Percival Everett

You will learn that Percival Everett’s favorite word is No. You will learn that the gizmo used to castrate a horse is called – somewhat appropriately – an emasculator. You will learn the importance of reading forklift manuals. You will learn that Percival Everett doesn’t believe in the ‘craft’ of writing. You will learn about the craft of writing.

What I think bothers Everett about the term ‘craft’ is its implication that ideal forms, structures and processes exist (and can be taught) to generate fiction. As a writer whose reputation has been built on his unwillingness to accept categorization – of either his writing, or his person – and his career-long experimentation with form (some would even say rejection), this discomfort with the idea of a ‘right way to write’ is entirely consistent with his worldview.

As a consequence, Everett focused on ends rather than means during his September visit to Virginia Tech : on what effective fiction achieves, rather than how it is made. And it became clear to this author over the course of a day’s interaction with Everett – first in his ironically titled ‘craft talk’, then at a public reading of en excerpt from his novel-in-progress, and finally at dinner in an Italian restaurant whose walls were decked with pictures of horses (thus the emasculator) – that he cares most about how fiction is experienced. For Everett, it is the reader alone who creates meaning (I am tempted to describe this approach as post-modern, but that I suspect that would annoy him).

Everett rejects the notion that fiction has an ‘asymptotic’ relationship with reality (you will also learn that Percival Everett studied math in college). In other words, he rejects the idea that fiction aspires to be ‘objectively true’ and that the greatest fiction is that which comes closest to a depiction of the real world.

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Rather, he conceives of fiction as a series of strategic convergences and divergences from reality that create an authentic experience on the page.

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There are times when real-life is too absurd to read as authentic on the page and so, as writers, we must beware conflating truth with verisimilitude (you will learn that Percival Everett thinks that any MFA student who defends their work by protesting “but it really happened!” should be defenestrated).

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Conversely, there are times when authenticity on the page, comes from the ‘hyper-real’.

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An example Everett discussed was the difference between speech in real life, which generally reads like dribble when transcribed on the page (with all its inelegant ums and ahs…and in my case, liberal cursing), and fictional dialogue, which – if we were to reproduce it in the real world – would just make us all sound like pretentious wankers.

Crafty, no?

-Beejay S.

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