The Times reports today that Esquire's "The Last Days of Heath Ledger," a piece of "reported fiction," came about when editor David Granger assigned "aspiring fiction writer" Lisa Taddeo to suss out what happened to the late actor in his final hours. Now that the final product is online, we thought we'd have some other aspiring fiction writers take a look and see if they can't offer Taddeo some constructive criticism. So we made fourteen photocopies, hopped in our time machine, and brought back the members of our 1995 undergraduate fiction workshop to take a look. After we explained who Heath Ledger was, they were happy to offer some critiques. Their advice? Show, don't tell!
Professor Betts: Now we have a short story by Ms. Taddeo, called "The Last Days of Heath Ledger." It's a fictionalized account of the death of a famous movie star.
Ginger: I didn't get it?
Professor Betts: What do you mean?
Ginger: Like, the whole thing? He dies, but he keeps talking? Can you do that? Also, I think in a lot of places she was telling, not showing.
Alex: Well, I thought the entire story was a work of genius. All she had to go on was her imagination and an afternoon spent sitting in the Miro Cafe, and she gave us a brilliant look inside the mind of a guy who can pick up any girl he wants but still resents his fans!
Us: You guys didn't think it was totally exploitative? Like, all that stuff about his daughter? Or the part where he can't get it up?
Alex: Oh, no. It's a new paradigm in fiction writing.
Tucker: And the dialogue! I thought it was really brave how she didn't use quotation marks.
That Guy Who Compares Everything to Cormac McCarthy: That was a total McCarthy homage.
Us: I liked the part where she described Jack Nicholson as leaning back and "spreading his legs like he's got seven cocks that need room to breathe." But overall, it seemed kind of overwritten.
Anna: Oh, I'm sorry, I'm really sorry, I know that's your opinion, and it's totally valid, but I sort of, um, I disagree? I thought the story was full of beautiful passages, like, um, the part where he dies?
[Everyone murmurs agreement.]
Anna: Oh, it was so gorgeous, I mean, that's what I thought, and it seems like everyone agrees with me.
Us: The moment of death sounds like the needle scratching off a record?
Alex: It's a metaphor.
Us: And what about that stuff at the end where he's excoriating his fans for making stuff up about him? Isn't that exactly what she's doing in the story?
Alex: Yes, and it's brilliant. Even as she satirizes celebrity culture, she's winkingly implicating herself as well!
Us: But —
Will: And the story really uses some awesome big words, too. Like "apotheosis."
Susan: That totally worked, because Heath Ledger was, like, a smart movie star. But he had trouble with the Monday crossword too! I can never finish the crossword puzzles, and when I read that I was like, Ohmigod, he's just like me! In that way the author created empathy with her protagonist?
Professor Betts: The editor of Esquire has said he wants to make his magazine's fiction more newsy, like this piece. Do you agree with that idea?
Jim: Oh yeah. This is exactly the kind of revolutionary writing that an edgy magazine like Esquire should run.
Us: I would prefer it if one of the few major outlets for short fiction still available to writers didn't publish stunt stories like this, and instead ran fiction that was really about something, you know?
That Guy Who Compares Everything to Cormac McCarthy: Like Blood Meridian.
Us: Jesus, fine, like Blood Meridian.
The Quiet Girl Who Always Pipes Up at the End to Agree With Everyone: I liked it.