The Association of Writing Programs (AWP) puts out a review/journal called The Writer's Chronicle (sadly, not available online), similar in many ways to Poets and Writers. As does Poets and Writers, Writer's Chronicle always steers pretty close to the mainstream, dispensing "advice" and "analysis" that seldom strays from the conventional and currently accepted.
Rarely, however, has WC printed an essay as vapid and uninformed as "Translating Ideas: What Scientists Can Teach Fiction Writers About Metaphor," written by Debra Fitzgerald and featured in the new issue of the journal (March/April 2004). The essence of her argument in favor of "scientific" uses of metaphor can perhaps be gleaned from this analysis rather late in the essay. First she quotes a passage from Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn:
The cat walked in from the main room and stood on my outstretched thighs and began kneading them with its front paws, half-retracted claws engaging the material to make a pocka-pocka-pocka sound. . .The cat was black and white with a Hitler moustache, and when it finally noticed I had a face it squeezed its eyes at me. . .The big Nazi cat went on raking up thread-loops from my trousers, seemingly intent on single-handedly reinventing Velcro. . .its uneven cackling purr. [Ellipses inserted by Fitzgerald.]
There is a clearly defined object here--the cat--but there are three different images attached to it. The big Nazi cat with the Hitler moustache and cackling purr intent on reinventing Velcro conjures up simultaneous images of an ethnic cleanser, a witch, and, I don't know, an inventor. While these images are fun and evocative, they are a dead-end. They do not heighten our understanding of the idea of this cat. It's a passage full of nonfunctional, decorative metaphors, a good example of writing that is all style, no substance.
This reading of the passage is so ham-handed that I can't entirely be sure I know what it's getting at, but the point seems to be that Lethem (it would be more accurate to say Lionel Essrog, the narrator), is not sufficiently concerned with giving us a clearly "functional" description of the cat, one that gives us an "idea" of the cat. (Why that would be necessary is not explained.) It's apparently not enough that Lethem would use the cat as an opportunity to create a word-portrait, a verbal construction, one that might go beyond the merely "functional" to help us see the "clearly defined object" in a less clearly defined, but perhaps more insightful way. Or, more importantly, that he would use this scene and Essrog's perception of the cat to help us more fully understand Essrog's own, I don't know, peculiar relationship to the world (keeping in mind his own Tourette's-induced verbal habits.)
I once taught a course in contemporary American fiction in which during our discussion of John Updike's Rabbit Run a student bitterly complained about Updike's generous (my word) prose style. In another class I had recently heard a similar complaint about Madame Bovary. (All that description.) I was led to say to the Updike-fatigued student--perhaps more harshly than I should have--that I found it strange to be accusing a writer of engaging in "too much writing." (The rest of the class did find it amusing.)
I have to say that I think this is what Debra Fitzgerald's argument boils down too. Too many writers doing too much damn writing. Too much style, and not enough substance. This is not the occasion for going into a lengthy disquisition about the interaction of style and substance, about the way in which style creates its own substance, etc., etc. Suffice it to say that Fitzgerald wants writers to follow scientists in providing strictly functional metaphors that help to explain and instruct, and that I think this couldn't be a more unfortunate and almost willfully obtuse understanding of what serious fiction--literature--ought to be about. Certainly there are plenty of writers who take the merely "decorative" as the index of good writing, but Lethem isn't one of them, and neither is Updike.
(And frankly I often find the use of these "functional" metaphors by scientists and science writers to be annoying and implicitly condescending, a way of dumbing down science for the rest of us yokels.)
What finally disturbs me the most about "Translating Ideas" is precisely that it is published by Writer's Chronicle and at least implicitly has its imprimatur. I can't be certain about the editors' intentions in publishing the essay, but I have to assume they at least in part found it compelling and worth passing along to its readers. And since a very large part of its readership consists of student and aspiring writers, that this is the advice they get from an influential "professional" organization to me borders on scandalous. If the powers that be in Creative Writing programs hope to turn out writers who follow this advice, Heaven help us. Literature has already been shown the door in departments of literary study; is writing to be expelled from Creative Writing?