Saturday, March 12, 2011

Books for Writers: "A Master Class in Fiction Writing"

I could not begin to tell you how many books I've read over the last 35 years. The first book I remember is a Dick and Jane primer, from which I read in front of my entire morning kindergarten class. I still remember the embarrassment I felt when the teacher realized I was making up “f” words to cover my inability to puzzle out “Funny. Funny.”
In later years, the library became my babysitter. On school breaks, I'd go to work with my Dad and he'd drop me off at either the Maine State Library or the Lithgow Library across town.
Lithgow had a children's fiction section. The State Library had mostly nonfiction. I read anything I could get my hands on at both, including every Tom Swift book, all the variations of The Joy of Sex and a self-help book for women called Becoming Orgasmic.
I was probably eight when I read C.S. Lewis' Narnia books. My Mom would pick them up for me at the Gardiner Library.
When I went into town with my Mom she'd usually give me $2 to spend at LaVerdiere's, a local drug store chain. In those days, comic books were 40 cents each and I either could get two of those, with a candy bar and a soda pop, or spend $1.99 for a paperback from the Trixie Belden series. I usually picked the paperback because I knew the comics and candy would be old news in 30 minutes but I could spend the better part of weekend with Trixie. Trixie had red hair, and I've always been a sucker for redheads.
In my early teens, when I started making my own money, I made it a practice to get the biggest bang for my buck. Charleston Chews lasted longer than Three Musketeers, so I gnawed away at Charleston Chews. The bookstore in Augusta was called Mr. Paperback, and I usually made my literature purchases based on length. I devoured books back then and I wanted to make sure I squeezed as much reading time as I could out of every cent.
Even now with an adult job and a wife and a kid and and a grad program and cable television, I get through at least two books each week, start to finish.
With this sort of reading history behind me, is it any surprise that my reaction to Adam Sexton's Master Class in Fiction Writing was something akin to “Well, duh”? Sexton's central idea is that you can learn to write by reading. He breaks his book into chapters on the various narrative modes, story construction, point of view, etc., and models each through the works of authors he believes get it right. The “Style and Voice” chapter, he gives to Ernest Hemmingway. James Joyce gets “Story Structure.” “Description” goes to John Irving, and so on. At the end of each chapter, Sexton lists other authors and books writers should read for additional modeling.
I got more out of Master Class than I expected, especially after spitting in disgust through Sexton's “Introduction.” In it, the author rehashes the debate over whether writing can be taught or if writers just spring, fully formed, out of God's inkwell. The correct conclusion, by the way, is that writing cannot be taught, but it can be learned – and teachers and mentors can help.
Sexton's examples are clear and his discussion of why his select authors belong in their assigned chapters is illuminating. I enjoyed “Rabbit Run,” for example, but now I better see why and how it works. My father gave me “Lolita” when I was 15, but Sexton's inclusion of the book in his chapter on story structure made me appreciate it more for its craftmanship than for its creepiness. (It also made me want to read it again, looking at it now from my perspective in middle age.)
I respect Master Class for the same reason I respect Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer. Prose and Sexton are absolutely right; writers can learn a lot from close reading of the so-called masters of the craft. Treat each turn of the page like an autopsy. Dissect each paragraph until you understand how and why it works.
It's great advice. But it's not for me.
I have a different method. I refuse to pore over each page (unless it's called for in, say, a third semester essay) until all I see are the mechanics, nor will I ever get to the point where, as a writer, I “do not read for fun.” (John Irving, Master Class in Fiction Writing, page xx). Reading and I have been lovers too long to let the romance die that way. Instead, I will continue to read with abandon, pouring books through my eyes and ears until I leak a slime trail of words wherever I go, and moisten everything I touch with digested letters. I will grow fat on story and bloated on other people's research and experience. Along the way, I'll probably learn a few things about writing. Maybe I already have. If that means I'm not a real writer, John Irving, even a real reader, John Irving, so be it. I'd rather die fat and happy, kicking books off my bed in my death throes, than be skinny and right.
So, Mr. Sexton, Ms. Prose, let's join hands and celebrate our commonalities. We agree on one important point: Writers should read. Let's just leave it at that.

1 comment:

  1. Word. I kind of cite this as the reason why I couldn't point out what a predicate was in early to mid high school, but could write better than most in the class. It's some sort of absorption/mimicry thing, a lot like speaking.

    You can learn everything you need to know from Prose's book in the first 50 pages. It's hardly worth the other 200 that read more like a dripping love letter than a book about writing. She also used translated works, which was kind of inappropriate.