Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Books for Writers: "The Stuff of Fiction"

           Douglas Bauer does not have a Wikipedia entry nor, seemingly, a website of his own but his name and partial biography can be found in several places on the World Wide Web.
The Bennington College website reports Bauer — who is the author of three novels and at least two books of nonfiction, editor of two anthologies, and a member of Bennington’s faculty — as the winner of a $25,000 literary fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts this year. Bauer also was lauded, in October 2009, as one of the best food writers of the year in the anthology Best Food Writing 2009 by Da Capo press. According to the Napa Valley Writer's Conference (NVWC) website, Bauer has taught creative writing at Harvard University, Smith College and, in 2004, at the NVWC.

In February 2009, writing for the St. Petersburg Times, reviewer Annette Gallagher Weismann described his recently reprinted book Prairie City, Iowa: Three Seasons at Home as a relief to read “when times are stressful.”
By all accounts, Bauer is a respected writer, editor and teacher of the craft. He also is the author of The Stuff of Fiction: Advice on the Craft, published by The University Press of Michigan in 2000. The book was enlarged, revised and rereleased in 2006.
In the introduction to the book, Bauer claims to have written the guide in “hopes [of being] of practical advice to writers” by offering advice from the horse’s mouth, from “the point of view of someone at the task, engaged with work, inside the effort to bring an invented world to life.” (The Stuff of Fiction, page 1). Bauer also claims to have set this mission on the page “Simply,” but any good newspaperman would have cut Bauer’s lede by at least 14 words, making his message tighter and, in effect, more simple. As American publisher Joseph Pulitzer said, “Put it before them briefly so they will read it, clearly so they will appreciate it and, above all, accurately so they will be guided by its light.” (
Pulitzer’s advice uses 28 words to convey three points while Bauer uses 41 to convey two, that he wrote The Stuff of Fiction to help writers and that he is, indeed, writing as a working writer: “Simply put, this book hopes to be of practical use to writers, and to do so by assuming the point of view of someone at the task, engaged at the work, inside the effort to bring an invented world to life.” (The Stuff of Fiction, page 1)
Contrast this with author and website owner Stephen King’s mission statement in his book on writing, On Writing, published by Pocket Books in 2000: “What follows is an attempt to put down, briefly and simply, how I came to the craft, what I know about it now and how it is done.”  (On Writing, First Forward, page 15)
That’s 28 words, covering three points.
Shorter is not always better but as Elmore Leonard (who also has a website and 40-some books to his credit) writes in his 10 Rules of Writing, which has hung on my classroom wall for the past three years, “Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.” Leonard’s “things” might include Bauer’s mission in The Stuff of Fiction.
Thirty-eight pages along, Bauer describes the study of sentences thusly: “It is certainly helpful to study the performance of sentences one at a time, inspecting the makeup of each one as it rolls past our eye on the assembly line of narrative.” (The Stuff of Fiction, page 37) Anyone familiar with the line-editing idiom “Make every word fight for its life” might wonder if Bauer’s first sentence in his study of sentences needs “certainly” or if “inspecting the makeup of each one as it rolls past our eye on the assembly line of narrative” could be offered more simply as “as you read it.” Earlier in his text, Bauer praises writer David Malouf for his use of the simple immediacy of  the word “on,” in the case of bees attacking a character, instead of over writing with bees “start[ing] to collect frighteningly around her” or “alight[ing] and quickly cover[ing] her.”(The Stuff of Fiction, page 28)
Bauer is writing to writers as a writer, which means he is, in essence, attempting to establish a dialogue among equals with his audience. The writing style he adopts then would seem to fly in the face of the advice he offers in the chapter on dialogue he penned for The Stuff of Fiction, to wit: “Well-crafted dialogue sounds as if its speakers are conversing exclusively while all the while it is utterly mindful of the reader” (The Stuff of Fiction, page 47) and “If readers have too little, they are of course going to feel confused and become quickly estranged. There is not enough promise held out to them that they are ever going to get what they need to ground themselves. But giving them too much is equally unwise, leaving them potentially over informed and uninterested.” (The Stuff of Fiction, page 50.)
Elsewhere in his craft guide, Bauer continues to extol the virtues of simplicity. “Err on the side of obviousness,” he writes in his chapter dubbed “Implicit Narrative.” (The Stuff of Fiction, page 84)  Later on that page he bemoans a recent writing trend: “Increasingly, though, there appears to be an absolute abhorrence of obviousness about. And more often than not it seems the case that the writer who feels explicitness must be avoided is the writer who does not understand that the narrative can work both subtlety and straightforwardly. He has not learned how to write with an open, a generous, implicitness.”
Bauer praises author John Cheever for his “precision and restraint,” using as an example a passage from Cheever's novel “The Cure”: “My wife and I had a quarrel and Rachel took the children and drove off in the station wagon  ...” (The Stuff of Fiction, page 150)  In those 21 words Cheever succeeds in  telling a story, building a world, and populating it with characters. We know there is a husband, a wife, an argument and enough children to require a station wagon. We also know the wife has options – she can escape the situation – and the husband has little passion for life. Cheever's precision and restraint is worth praising but I can't put Bauer's mission statement, two points from 41 words, out of my mind.
Having never read anything else by Douglas Bauer, I cannot comment on his writing choices in general. The Stuff of Fiction offers good advice and I contend with Bauer's presentation,  not what he is presenting. However, if his sentence style and syntax is similar in his other books, I am not sure that I would find a few chapters of Prairie City, Iowa a good way to unwind, as did reviewer Weismann. If Bauer opted to write this way solely for his craft book, I'm not clear on his reasoning.
In closing The Stuff of Fiction, Bauer allows that a writer's craft cannot make up for his or her lack of horsepower and that no matter how well you examine the nuts and bolts of a work, there will always be  an aspect that cannot be defined: “As [Walker] Percy implies, what is mystical about writing is the awarding of talent – how much we are given, how little if any. The possession of the gift itself is arguably a spiritual transaction. While the rest of it, the daily business of craft, is bracingly pedestrian. It is with that luminous dailiness in mind that this book is written.” (The Stuff of Fiction, page 186.)  With that Bauer restates his mission, in three simple sentences, for a total of 37 words, finally achieving what he's been telling his readers to do all along. But perhaps that's been his plan since page one. As he wrote in his chapter on closings, “I would say that an ending that succeeds both culminates and at the same time continues the story.” (The Stuff of Fiction, page 168)
 Bauer's writing does seem to grow more simple and more clear as his guide moves chapter to chapter toward the end.
Perhaps he learned from his own examples?

Works Cited or Discussed

Douglas Bauer. Advice on the Craft. University of Michigan Press: 2000, 2006.

Stephen King. On Writing: A Memoir on the Craft. Pocket Books, New York, 2000

Elmore Leonard. Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules of Writing. William Morrow, 2007

1 comment:

  1. Some of the best advice I received on writing were the 20 Rules for Good Writing by Writer's Digest on a 5 x 7 card. And they could have narrowed those 20 down to 10. I combined 1 & 2 here: "Prefer the plain, familiar word to the fancy or unfamiliar." And I combined 4 & 5: "Prefer picture nouns and verbs to adjectives and adverbs." And the most important advice they gave: "Write to be understood, not to impress." Most advice doesn't need an entire book to get the message across. Good reading, Rob!