As any mystery buff knows, hints are tricky devils. Too few, and one feels lost amid seemingly disconnected events and characters. On the other hand, oversaturation can seem condescending and takes the fun out of it. A good mystery walks the knife’s edge between the two. If successful, the Big Reveal sends readers flipping back through the pages, looking for the clues they picked up on and the ones they missed, satisfied in their own ability to deduce even parts of the truth from the breadcrumbs.
Hint Fiction, brainchild of one Robert Swartwood, must walk a similar balance, I think. Much like a mystery, the author is asking the reader to contribute his or her own thoughts to the work presented. When successful, the reader may break into a knowing grin or inhale slowly. A short “Hmm” expressed as a single chuckle is not uncommon. These reactions are provoked by a synthesis of the author’s direction and the reader’s imagination.
My brief flirtation with the form (documented on my Facebook and Twitter) felt more akin to writing short-form poetry (haiku in particular) than to writing fiction. The word economy was certainly a contributing factor, but I think it also came from the pressure to be profound. There is an expectation to deliver a literary “Oh Snap!” moment, a barb or twist within your 25 words that will turn your readers on their heads. This makes bad hint fiction induce groans and even good hint fiction feel slightly contrived. The form already lends itself to darker iterations, so much so that the expected punches become predictable after reading through a dozen entries. Thus, for maximum effectiveness, doctors recommend taking no more than two every four hours.
Then again, without the bit of cleverness, would hint fiction be what it is? Would it even work? “Dave bought some eggs at the store, then stopped for a chai before heading home” could be called hint fiction, but it doesn’t feel like hint fiction. We expect the brief sting of the willow switch or the not-quite-audible murmur of sinister laughter. Without it, the story falls completely flat.
I suppose the ultimate goal is to weave in a sort of Dubliners-style subtlety that leaves the final product open to interpretation. Thus, like with the rest of the writing world, all one need do to excel is be brilliant. Easy enough.
The Rocky Mountain Collegian, esteemed newspaper of Colorado State University, greeted Monday’s students, staff, and faculty with this article. As CSU is generally not known for anything aside from its vet med school, the enthusiasm around this announcement (finding?) is understandable. The conclusion came by way of collecting the opinions of high-level administrators (presidents, deans, etc) from 1,500 different schools on which schools “typically make the writing process a priority at all levels of instruction and across the curriculum.” That CSU even came up at all in this discussion was a surprise to me, much less that it was mentioned alongside pearlescent (fuck you, WordPress, that is too a word) monoliths of academia like Harvard, Duke, Princeton, and the University of Iowa. Good press for the green and gold by any measure, and a welcome reprieve from news of the football team’s outstanding failure to “tear the Buffaloes’ line asunder as down the field [they] thunder.”
However, as a graduate of CSU’s English program, I feel both entitled and inclined to greet this news with a cruel chuckle and a knowing smirk. Somewhat predictably, the majority of my classes used essay, story, or poem assignments to evaluate student competence and progress. From the 2012 U.S. News and World Report, this seems to be a common trend across most undergraduate majors, although whatever lingering pride I have as an English major likes to think our department did it harder and better. Long after the pride and fervor over this announcement fades (trends predict next Friday), the English program spawn will still walk tall, confident in our ability to swap lenses and deconstruct like motherfuckers.
What amuses me most about this ranking, however, is the methodology used to achieve it. The respondents weren’t asked which schools produce the best writers or highest-quality essays. Universities didn’t submit examples of student writing that crammed ten pounds of crackling brilliance into a five-pound Maserati of delivery. Rather, we ranked nationally among those who place emphasis on writing, and the CSU marketing team is more than willing to equate emphasis with excellence in this case. As any topical foray into the nethers of fan fiction will tell you, however, being emphatic about something doesn’t mean you’re excellent at it.
To illustrate: I tend toward high levels of emphasis when playing computer strategy games (both real-time and turn-based). However, I have a well-founded suspicion that I’m not very good at them. I’m certain my ass would resemble creamed corn after a single round of online competitive play, and yet I persist in playing single-player campaigns or co-ops. They entertain me, but I am not concerned with improving my skill at playing them.
Similarly, the emphasis placed on writing at CSU is meaningless without the vital component of a student’s desire to improve. Most undergraduates I knew (in the English department, mind you) viewed essays as lumpy masses of wasted time to be squeezed out so they could get their degree. Interest in the subject matter was rare, interest in creating an MLA-approved comment on the subject matter rarer. In one class, I toyed with the idea of turning in a bag of trash in lieu of a final essay at the end of the semester. Not only was I aware that my “contributions to an ongoing academic discussion” of Foucault were worthless, but I didn’t care about improving them.
Now add the logistical impossibility of paying enough instructors and graduate students to facilitate meaningful commentary on each essay submitted in every section of every course. Odds are, the resulting degree casserole will taste less like good writing and more like good beer no matter how many times the student wrote about application of theory to a text or practice.
So congratulations, Colorado State! Your emphasis has been nationally ranked.
Having squashed the shockingly strong impulse to troll my own website with the very first post, please allow me a moment to explain myself.
Great. Well done. If I can steal a moment, I can steal a mile (that is how that saying goes, right?). Now then, you are here for one reason alone: to follow along as I awkwardly attempt to create a collection of noteworthy, amusing, or disheartening entries. Much like a young child making a popcorn string, I imagine I will develop an irritating and endearing habit of eating posts for my own immediate gratification instead of placing them on the string. Thus, I can’t promise you a lovely, hand-crafted decoration in time for the holidays, but popcorn strings (and, by extension, blogs) are fashionable no matter the season.
As for the proposed content of my popcorn strings, I imagine they will be largely self-indulgent with the hope that my reader(s) will find them engaging enough to spend a few idle minutes with them. A personal blog I kept years ago was just such a creature, but my readership consisted entirely of my small circle of friends. Ideally, this will have a much larger readership if only because I don’t plan to
w hinepost about my personal life much. You can expect snippets of fiction, swaths of poetry, and daubs of video game, book, and movie reviews. Still indulgent, of course, but perhaps in a more entertaining way.
As a parting thought, I’ve read that text-only blogs are dull. In an effort to avoid falling into a habit of imagelessness, I present you with a picture of a castle in Ohio.