The Atlantic, Fiction 2010, and How to Write in 700 Easy Lessons

The Atlantic‘s fiction issue showed up this weekend and has, as usual, some fascinating material—most notably How to Write in 700 Easy Lessons: The case against writing manuals, which argues that books that teach you how to write like writing is an exercise in carpentry aren’t a good way to actually learn how to write. As he says:

The trouble of course is that a good book is not something you can put together like a model airplane. It does not lend itself to that kind of instruction. Every day books are published that contain no real artfulness in the lines, books made up of clichés and limp prose, stupid stories offering nothing but high concept and plot—or supra-literary books that shut out even a serious reader in the name of assertions about the right of an author to be dull for a good cause. (No matter how serious a book is, if it is not entertaining, it is a failure.)

The real solution for writers? Reading:

My advice? Put the manuals and the how-to books away. Read the writers themselves, whose work and example are all you really need if you want to write. And wanting to write is so much more than a pose.

Note that he makes a distinction between books that deal with the craft of writing or the aesthetics of writing (“we have several very fine volumes in that vein (Charles Baxter’s Burning Down the House and John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction come to mind”), but rather the books that act like you’re merely laying down two by fours (think of the old wheels that allegedly helped writers by things like “heroine declares her love”).

The books I offered in The very very beginning writer are geared toward the craft/aesthetic approach, not the model airplane approach, although I admit that I’ve ready some of the ones using the model airplane approach and promptly gone back to studying characterization with Robertson Davies, plot with Elmore Leonard, and depth with Francine Prose. D.G. Myers said, “I do not believe that anyone can learn to write fiction from a guidebook […]”, and he’s right. But I think that many if not most artists benefit from reflecting on their craft, especially when they’re learning it, and there’s a difference between guidebooks and ones that help shape fundamental skills, rather than merely giving a formula or recipe.

Some of the fiction in the issue is excellent too: The Landscape of Pleasure is fascinating for its half-knowledgeable narrator in the late adolescent mold, and T.C. Boyle’s The Silence almost ends with “And what was its message? It had no message, he saw that now,” a statement that feels deserved in the context.

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