Part 16 of an intermittent series where I read or re-read the writing books on my shelf to see if they’re worth keeping. See previous part here
This time round I’ve skipped a week – things going on, you know how it is -lockdown, day jobs, one thing crowds out another…
I’ve re-read a few classics, books that you’ll see over and over on lists of writing books you should read. I’m going to break with convention and tell you you don’t need to read them.
Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird does have a few nuggets of gold in but frankly they can be summarised easily (all first drafts are shit, you should break a complex task down into small pieces etc.) and covered elsewhere without Lamott’s ‘humour’ – you know when people have a self-belief that they’re ‘zany’ which is never something you should self-label with (imho.) In an early chapter she tells you that she grew up ‘ugly and awkward’ and had to become ‘funny’ to cope. YMMV but there is too much autobiography in here to want to wade through to get to the information. Too much noise to signal.
Writing down the bones is also one of those books that gets near universal acclaim and yet having read it a second time I found too touchy feely and not very useful on the subject of How to Be a Writer. The problem with both Goldberg and Lamott is that they are ‘life writers’ not fantasy (in the broader sense) and more about the writer than writing. As I saw in a review: “More about the leaves than the tree.”
If you want to be a poet or a memoirist you might get more out of these two books than I did.
John Gardner is probably better know for teaching writing than his own books (I tried to read Grendel and it was pretentious and not very good, again ymmv) and if Lamott and Goldberg are two garrulous aunts full of vim and vigour then Gardner is a fusty older uncle who’s spent too much time in academia: dry and snobbish. I think these two books have got useful stuff in but oh boy Gardner has to hit you with his opinions about Literature (definitely with a capital L) which is a higher vocation don’t you know. This is a quote from near the beginning of the Art of Fiction: “What is said here, whatever use it may be to others, is said for the elite; that is, for serious literary artists. The most elegant techniques in the world, filtered through a junk mind, become elegant junk techniques.”
That said the first section of On Being a Novelist (The Writer’s Nature) and part 2 of The Art of Fiction (Notes on the fictional process) do have some useful and interesting stuff in. But, you can find the nuts and bolts of the Art of Fiction elsewhere (without the pressure to be a literary artist) and neither section is good enough to wade through the rest of the dust to get to.
So that’s four books I don’t need on the shelf.
Next up is Word Work by Bruce Holland Rogers (subtitle – ‘Surviving and thriving as a writer’) and then The Writer’s Book of Doubt. Then I’ll move on to the genre specific (SF&F and Horror) and medium specific stuff (Scriptwriting for stage screen and comic.) And then…
Still plenty to keep this series of posts going for a while
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