2 Informative Books about Writing

These recent releases offer insights into the literary life




The subject of creation — in this case, writing — is one of endless interest. Most writers know the lessons of Strunk and White, William Zinsser, Anne Lamott, and others who have analyzed the writing process. Two recent books offer interesting additions.

How to Write Like Tolstoy: A Journey Into the Minds of our Greatest Writers by Richard Cohen (Random House). Readers as well as writers will love this book by veteran author-editor Cohen. It is filled with interesting information and engaging examples. I must begin by noting that Cohen’s thesis defies the first impressions of cynics like me who think one cannot teach good writing any more than one can teach how to play good tennis or the cello — one cannot be told; one has to do it!

My assumption is true, but Cohen does raise readers’ consciousness about the confounding act of writing, offers useful tips to beginners, and entertains readers along the way with examples of good rules of writing. His book does support his thesis; get on his train, and one can’t get off. The ride is smooth and should delight his readers.

Cohen would be the perfect dinner guest if the table were filled with lovers of literature and writing. While I might cast aspersions on the idea of teaching writing, Cohen presents persuasive anecdotal examples of helpful and valid techniques. For example, journalists know that a good “grabber” (lead sentences) and “kicker” (last sentences) make for good copy. Cohen presents proof of this and provides entertaining examples that make the point.

His explanations — and various authors’ remarks — about the need for rewriting are useful, too. There is no such thing as good writing, an adage states, only good rewriting.

Cohen also uses examples of his and other editors’ roles with authors, a subject engagingly portrayed in the recent movie “Genius,” which deals with the celebrated Scribner editor Maxwell Perkins and his collaborations with Thomas Wolfe and other famous authors.

I confess to a personal experience of gamesmanship between editor and author. When I wrote regularly for the New Republic years ago, I found that my editor repeatedly cut my lead paragraphs, in my mind my best literary opening shots in the pieces that followed. After a while, knowing this would happen, I added a throwaway lead, knowing he’d cut it, but preserving my intended opening. Such games authors play.

One must keep in mind, however, that as valuable as Cohen’s lessons are, fundamentally they all defer to a good writer’s instinctive practices. For example, as useful as the rule about opening lines to a book may be, there is a counter-rule which many writers follow: that openings should be written after the book is done. I’ve found that to be the case in some of my own writings. Authors may discover, as I did once, that the original lead was wrong, but only after the work is complete.

Cohen’s discussion of fiction and fact in novels is particularly interesting. The line between inventive creation and disguised reportage based on authorial experiences is a subject of profound interest. How can we write about what we don’t know? But that’s different from mirroring our experiences rather than finding inspiration from them. Novelists have been criticized for overdoing the use of their personal experiences in their fiction. Inspiration is one thing; masked personal revelations are another. That didn’t hold the late Nora Ephron back, though.

Cohen’s chapter on plots is interesting and includes theories from experts on the subject. I like Raymond Chandler’s remark that there are two kinds of writers, “writers who write stories and writers who write writing,” probably the best distinction I’ve heard between commercial and literary fiction, between Elmore Leonard and James Joyce. Leonard’s rule is, “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

Cohen himself confesses that the rules he discusses are muddling: “Better to dance, make love, write a novel without too much regard for the text books.” For lessons about writing, I return to Somerset Maugham’s famous line that there are three lessons to writing a good novel, and no one knows what they are.

*****

Writing America: Literary Landmarks from Walden Pond to Wounded Knee by Shelley Fisher Fishkin (Rutgers University Press) explores how geographical places help explain “how works of literature came to be what they are” by shaping “the lives and the art of authors.” Fishkin includes in her eclectic list well-known places like those in her subtitle, and interesting if less-known examples such as Latino and Asia-American landmarks representing the work of neglected authors.

The places of seminal interest to canonical American authors — Twain, Thoreau, Whitman, etc. — are examined, along with emerging 21st-century examples from modern writers and their legacies, such as Gloria Anzaldua, whose rural farmworker background in Hidalga, Texas, explains her literary inspiration, and Anzia Yezierska, whose fiction is enriched by her experiences in the urban tenements where she grew up.

“If literature has played a role in teaching us to value parts of the physical world, the physical world has also played a role in helping us understand aspects of literature,” Fishkin instructs in this book, which provides an academic resource for literary studies.

Both books are nice additions to libraries on the endlessly engaging subject of writing. Writers will find useful insights in Fishkin’s book, and readers will be entertained by Cohen’s.

Ronald Goldfarb is a Washington, DC, attorney and author whose CapitaLetters column appears regularly in the Washington Independent Review of Books.

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