Friday, November 21, 2014

Meta: Reading and Writing about Reading and Writing

I love to read books about reading. I’m not a writer, but I also love to read books about writing, especially if they inform my enjoyment as a reader. Here are a few of my favorites (plus a new one still “on my TBR list”): two about reading and writing fiction, two about reading and writing creative nonfiction, and two about writing in general.

James Wood, Professor of the Practice of Literary Criticism at Harvard University and staff writer for the New Yorker, saw a need for the literary equivalent of John Ruskin’s The Elements of Drawing. He may have filled it with his deceptively slight How Fiction Works (2008).  In concise numbered paragraphs, Wood discusses those elements of modern realist fiction he considers most important, especially narrative style, and most especially the narrative style called “free indirect.” Using examples from Flaubert to David Foster Wallace, he demonstrates its power to let the reader “inhabit omniscience and partiality at once.” New Yorker readers will recognize Wood’s often professorial tone (“But to repeat, what is a character?”) and his sometimes contrary and always certain opinions (“I find this deeply, incorrigibly wrong.”), but the depth of his understanding of and his passion for the modern novel are irresistible.

Francine Prose (what a great name for a writer!) is the author of seventeen novels (including one of this year’s RPL favorites, Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932). In her Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them (2006), she, too, looks at how fiction works. But Prose is more concerned with the lessons great fiction can offer an aspiring writer. She advocates a return to “close reading”: a word by word, sentence by sentence examination of a writer’s choices and the meaning those choices convey. Appropriately, her book is organized into building-block chapters, beginning with “Words,” “Sentences,” and “Paragraphs.” Chock full of lengthy textual analyses of passages from the greatest authors in English literature, she draws our attention to the craftsmanship that underlies their work.  Although I would not want all my reading to be this close, Prose’s observations have helped me identify what it is about a book that makes it good, or not.

Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction, further subtitled Stories and Advice from a Lifetime of Writing and Editing, is a collaborative effort by an author, Tracy Kidder, and his editor, Richard Todd, who have worked together since 1973. They discuss three main nonfiction forms -- narrative, memoir, and essay -- and suggest strategies and techniques for each. They also address the ethical issues confronted by nonfiction writers, the challenges of making a living as a writer, and the rapidly changing realm of publishing in an internet age. Although the authors write mostly in a single voice, each also offers his individual perspective and experiences in italicized passages that introduce each section.Good P rose is on its surface a thoughtful how-to for writers of nonfiction, but the evolving relationship of its authors and their appreciation for one another are at its heart.

Chief among the caveats Kidder and Todd offer is, to paraphrase, “Don’t make stuff up.”  They cite the example of essayist John D’Agata, who at the end of his book, About a Mountain, admits that “for dramatic effect” he has changed the chronology of events and conflated characters. This dismays Kidder and Todd, who “can rely on the accuracy of almost nothing we have just read.”

The debate about whether or not a creative nonfiction writer may, or should, alter facts to serve a literary goal is a lively one. Whichever side you favor, The Lifespan of a Fact (2012) is a must-read. Like Good Prose, it is a collaboration, but of a different sort: it is a seven-year email correspondence between the essayist whose reliability is questioned by Kidder and Todd, John D’Agata, and the intern, Jim Fingal, who fact-checked an article of his for the literary magazine Believer.  When Fingal introduces himself and questions a number cited in the piece, D’Agata responds that he doesn’t even think his article, which is about the suicide of a young man in Las Vegas, needs a fact-checker: “I think maybe there’s some sort of miscommunication, because the “article,” as you call it, is fine.”  The book reconstructs, paragraph by paragraph, the original article, sandwiched between the correspondence they agreed to continue in order to debate whether D’Agata owes fealty to the truth while pursuing his art. Between Fingal’s meticulous and sometimes sanctimonious insistence on “fact” and D’Agata’s arrogant conviction that he may disregard it to convey a greater “truth,” it’s hard to like either one of them. Nevertheless, Lifespan of a Fact is a fascinating read, and a valuable contribution to our understanding of the role and responsibilities of creative nonfiction.

I suspect all writers have read or or at some time referred to The Elements of Style, written in 1918 by English professor William Strunk, published in 1935 and updated by E. B. White in subsequent editions in 1959 and 1972. Almost a century old, it was for most of those years the definitive reference for the writer seeking the correct form of a personal pronoun (covered in “Elementary Rules of Usage”) or deciding whether to use “less“ rather than “fewer” (under “Words and Expressions Commonly Misused”). The advice in its “Elementary Principles of Composition” is still sound: “Use the active voice.” “Omit needless words.”  In the last section, “An Approach to Style,” Strunk muses that although being “correct” requires adherence to certain rules, “style” in its broader sense is a more elusive target. Instead of rules, he includes a gentler “List of Reminders”:  “Do not inject opinion.” “Avoid fancy words.” A lot of Strunk and White seems dated, but it is still amusing and helpful. Browse the illustrated version of its fourth edition (2005). Maira Kalman, known for her New Yorker covers and New York Times blogs, adds wit and whimsy with her 57 colorful drawings.

Strunk notes, “Writers will often find themselves steering by stars that are disturbingly in motion,” an observation which brings me to the recently released The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, by Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker (The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works). I had hoped to read it before I wrote this post, but other readers got in line ahead of me for the two copies at RPL. Its title suggests, correctly, that it is intended to be kind of an anti-Strunk. Pinker, whose specialties are visual cognition and the psychology of language, believes that language is instinctual: a biological adaptation for communication in a social group.  As such, it is still evolving, however “disturbingly” to purists. Although he acknowledges that some rules are necessary, he shrugs at nitpicks such as (ahem) the use of “like” for “such as.”  An occasional dangling modifier doesn’t alarm him, as long as it does not confuse. He wants us to use science -- modern grammatical theories and research on cognitive psychology -- to understand how rules developed, and recognize when they may be broken. He warns against “The Curse of Knowledge” -- the failure of writers to recognize that their readers may not know all they know.  In some respects he approaches writing like (“as”?) Prose does: word by word. “Good writers acquire their craft not from memorizing rules but from reading a lot, savoring and reverse-engineering good prose, and assimilating vast numbers of words, idioms, tropes, and stylistic habits and tricks.” I can’t wait to get my hands on this book, as soon as I finish rereading Woods and Prose.


Natalie D Librarian said...

I need all of these books! I must get my hands on the Francine Prose first.

Patty Parks said...

This is a great list for birthday gifts for my reading/writing friends. My favorite book is on this list...the Illustrated Elements of Style. I love what Maira Kalman adds to this, you not only become more engaged with the use of punctuation but you also learn a lot about looking at visual art and how the written word and image can interact. Thanks Ellen! This is so much better than Good Reads!