American writer Richard Bausch, in a recent essay for the Atlantic, bemoans the proliferation of writing manuals, or the people who buy them. Or the both of them. Or something. At any rate, he wants us to know that he no longer dresses like a bum.
Take a cursory look online. Amazon.com lists 4,470 titles under the heading of How to Write a Book. There, mixed with titles like How to Write a Chick Lit Novel and How to Write and Sell Your Novel are titles like How to Manage Your Home Remodel. Of course it’s the how to phrase that makes the listing what it is and where it is, but in fact, in terms of the expectations and the implied message, these books belong together, and according to the prevailing wisdom of our time, constructing a novel or a poem or a play is no different than building a back deck on your house.
I've yet to build a back deck or successfully construct a novel, but I've done some writing and I've done some building. I spent some time near the Michipicoten River in the Algoma District of Ontario, building bridges and clearing brush, and I put in some years writing record reviews. I tore up the train station in the town where Duddy Kravitz bought land and I once had a short story published in my friend's literary mag. I learned pretty early that you don't buy new shoes when you're out of town. Lately, I've been doing my best to put in an hour a day on a terrible novel so that I can
and move on to write something, y'know, at least approaching good. I've got ideas, plots, characters, scenes, beats, notes and notes piling up for all the good novels I'm going to write once I write this first terrible book that I've committed to. But this guy--in his Buster Browns from Brooks Brothers, who's too good for $10,000, who says he knows a lady that writes like "one of those electronic calculators"--shits all over people who are trying. Okay, he says that his quarrel (and the fact that he uses the word quarrel is a strong sign that he doesn't like you) is actually with "the implication" of writing manuals. And if that had played out in his essay, I'd probably have Twittered a link to it and moved on with my life. Because I could get behind a quarrel with the implications of writing manuals. A quarrel against those who seek to exploit amateurs and profit from their hopes while providing them with nothing useful. Hell yeah, that's a quarrel worth quarreling.
But Bausch instead spends far too many words and far too much vigour saying that people who want to write about zombies probably have bad skin, that genre fiction is "harmless, and honorable enough" and that people who read writing manuals don't want to be writers, they merely want to pose as writers. And why wouldn't you, when you too could have been horseback riding with Jane Smiley before she was Jane Smiley?
He rails and rails at these poseurs, these amateurs, and but maintains his chummy relationship with the publishers of the obviously snake-oil writing manuals, and even agrees to write a chapter for one of their guides. Ultimately, though, he can abide no longer, when the editing of said writing manual "does violence to my meaning."
Fuck his meaning. And fuck the Brooks Brothers shoes he walked in on.
Writing is not a mystical butterfly to be captured in a net woven from the tears of a warlock who cries only at the beauty of a lady-in-waiting who waits no more, but goes down to the valley and tempts the unicorn from her cave with sweets from beyond the realm of her saints. Y'know?
Writing is this basic thing that usually requires nothing more than fingers and ideas. And sometimes not even that much. In his excellent and humane writing manual, This Year You Write Your Novel, Walter Mosley defines the novel as "a pedestrian work about the everyday lives of bricklayers and saints." I can get behind that. I can take umbrage in that. I can relate to that.
What I can't get behind is Bausch's reckless snobbery. He gives an example of what he believes to be poor writing, but provides no context before condemning it as "unwittingly hilarious." Come on, Bausch (unless you've made up the example yourself), even a soured lime like you can't believe a line like "He tweaked her nipple and grabbed it as though it was the arm of a small child" could be hilarious in other way than quite wittingly.
I've been lucky enough to spend a few afternoons with facilitators from Megaphone Magazine's writing workshops in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. I've seen them encourage and enable absolutely wonderful prose and poetry from barely literate writers.
I don't know what Richard Baush is afraid of. He's achieved a career as a writer of novels and stories (very good ones, by most accounts), and certainly shouldn't feel threatened by the legions aspiring just that. There are many useful books on writing, there are many more that are a total waste of time. You didn't need me to tell you that.
Ironically, Bausch closes his penultimate paragraph with:
To my mind, nothing is as important as good writing, because in literature, the walls between people and cultures are broken down, and the things that plague us most—suspicion and fear of the other, and the tendency to see whole groups of people as objects, as monoliths of one cultural stereotype or another—are defeated.
What a dick.