I don't mean to take out all my problems with MFA fiction (as I think of it) on E. Annie Proulx's The Shipping News. In many ways Proulx does not even fit the profile: born too early, in 1935, and without the requisite time spent in a post-graduate fiction-writing program. (Also, she has written science fiction and she wrote the story Brokeback Mountain was based on, which sets her apart even further.) But so many aspects of The Shipping News do fit the profile: Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, check. Chiseled prose, check. High quirk factor, check. Elaborate metaphor schema obtained via societal throwaway, check. Touchy-feely with an overlay of hard-bitten cynicism, yes that too. Its story is about a halfway defeated man who arrives in Newfoundland, improbably finds work as a newspaper columnist (newspaper staff full of characters, check), and, with the help of a plucky aunt who knows the ins and outs of hard-won survival (check), cobbles together a tiny life of enviable fulfillment. It's easy enough to engage with, easy enough to cheer on, easy enough to find warmth and hope. The theme of knots, which ties to the nautical culture of Newfoundland, works pretty well insofar as it is so concrete, drawing its factoids from a little book Proulx says she paid a quarter for at a garage sale. On the other hand, see what R.D. Laing has to say about that. How hard is it to make metaphors for life out of the things people have figured out to do with string and ropes? The success of this novel is nothing to blame Proulx for. She deserves credit. It more than earns that suspicious sobriquet that so often accompanies damnation with faint praise—"well-written"—and the characters may be quirky but they are just as lovable as anybody who ever trod the soundstages of "Northern Exposure." And I really mean that—I adore Wavey Prowse, and if she ever managed to step from out of the pages of this and I got the chance to meet her, my fondest desire is that she would accept my proposal of marriage. Yet reading this novel turned out to be a bit of a slog; I was often exasperated by its inertia and the lack of surprises among its self-conscious collection of human oddity foibles, and only too intermittently succumbed to its charms, from which it maintained a maddening, studied distance. I think that distance is the source of my problem. The characters are lovable, but there's a sense that loving them is just not cool, and so it is hard to love them. Yet they remain lovable, signaling exactly that like homing beacons through the carefully constructed veils of disaffection. I think that's the main problem I mean when I talk about my problems with MFA fiction.