Book Review: Letters to a Young Writer, by Colum McCann

Letters to a Young Writer

by Colum McCann

HarperCollins, April 2017

This is a short book of writing advice by one of my favorite fiction writers, Colum McCann, author of Let the Great World Spin, among many other books.  When someone whose work I admire as much as I do McCann’s offers writing advice, I’m going to listen.

The book collects a series of short writings on particular topics, many of which will be familiar to writers who have studied the craft.  Familiar or not, it occurs to me that the letters will serve as reminders of lessons that some of us may have forgotten.

The first is on a topic that I cover when I teach: There are no rules. “To hell with grammar, but only if you know the grammar first. To hell with formality, but only if you have learned what it means to be formal. To hell with plot, but you better at some stage make something happen.” And so on. Another favorite is “Don’t Write What You Know.” This appears to contradict the old saw, “write what you know,” but McCann prefers this formulation: “Write toward what you don’t know.” (I heard the same advice years ago from Grace Paley, put only slightly differently: “Write what you don’t know about what you know.”)

There are over fifty of these letters, with topics such as “Read Aloud,” “How Old is the Young Writer?,” “Don’t be a Dick,” and “Read, Read, Read.” Having just spent three weeks researching my current project in Southeast Asia, I appreciated this one: “Research: Google Isn’t Deep Enough.”

There is some practical advice (Where should I write?) and some of a more philosophical nature (Why tell stories?), but the whole collection is a mini-course in creative writing that beginning writers, especially, will find invaluable. But I plan to keep the book nearby for rereading, as there is some advice here I can’t be told too often.

2 New Book Reviews

Issue73_Review_DavidPayne--element218 Issue73_Review_CurtisSmith--element218I recently read and reviewed two very different memoirs, both excellent.

The first is Barefoot to Avalon by David Payne. Novelist Payne’s brother was killed in an auto accident in 2000. Their relationship was complicated, and his brother’s death only added strain to the pressure Payne was already feeling. I describe the memoir as “breathless,” which is how I felt while I was reading it.

The second is Communion by Curtis Smith. I’ve read a number of books by Smith. This one is a wonderful follow-up to his last collection of essays. Both books are meditations on fatherhood, but in the new book Smith’s son is older and the challenges Smith and his wife face are different.

Check out the reviews if you have a chance. I can highly recommend both books.

Book Review: So There! by Nicole Louise Reid

So There

So There!

By Nicole Louise Reid

Stephen F. Austin State University Press

The stories in this surprising, slim collection by Nicole Louise Reid occupy a narrow, rich range. They share a lyrical, concise language, but they also explore common territory, the dark and deeply emotional side of childbirth and parenting. The result is a sometimes disturbing, but ultimately satisfying, reading experience.

First time through, pay attention to the children, especially the babies. They’re everywhere. In “To the Surface for Air,” a young woman who has recently given birth tells the story of watching a river dolphin who repeatedly tried to bring its dead baby to the surface. In “Two Swimmy Fishes,” a woman gives birth to twins. They don’t survive, but the woman names them and behaves as if they were alive. In “Pearl in a Pocket,” the narrator’s mother is pregnant again, after many stillborn female babies. And in “So There” (without the exclamation point of the book’s title), the narrator’s mother gives birth to a baby that may or may not be her husband’s, but the child does not live—whether killed by the mother or father is not clear.

Even the children who survive their infancy struggle, thanks to their parents. In the book’s opening story, “If You Must Know,” Pearl—whose father left home and is living with his girlfriend on a houseboat—believes she has become host to a cicada that entered her while she was making love to Wallace. Later, when Wallace returns to capitalize on her notoriety, Pearl excises the bug, which is surely a metaphor for an abortion or stillbirth. In “Glimpses of Underthings,” Agnes is a tease to the high school boys, partly in reaction to the odd behavior of her mother and her lecherous father. In “So There,” the narrator’s flirtatious mother loves to torture her jealous husband, driving her daughter further away.

Next time through the book, focus on the language and the fresh word choice. In “Like Paper Snow,” a story about a sad childhood memory: “To know which morning is the dream—that yellow halting years ago or nearly every woken day since—I’ve come back to this small, white room of washing and waiting.” In “Someone Like Me”: “. . . I barely listened to Caroline, barely noticed anything around me, except for the honeysuckle fearlessly climbing the kudzu sweet with hope.” In “Careless Fish”: “There are practicalities, too. Of clothing and hair. Of nakedness and moonlight. In a new moon, maybe I’d pretend he couldn’t see me. But only a sliver bitten out of the night is too much light.”

These stories deserve close attention. And while they are dark, offering little in the way of redemption, each one is a finely crafted work of art and a deep study of what makes us who we are.

>The Ethics of Book Reviewing

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Last week I saw a book review by someone I know in an online newspaper (not a literary magazine) that gets a lot of exposure. The book under review was one by someone else I know—someone who is a very close friend of the reviewer. I read the review and looked for the disclaimer that informed the reader of the relationship, but there was none.

The review was, as you might guess, extremely positive. (I own a copy of that book and plan to read it soon; knowing the author and his work, and liking both, I expect that I will enjoy it thoroughly.) Later I saw a review of the same book in another online publication. This one was also very positive, but this reviewer began by disclosing a long-standing friendship with the author. Although such a disclosure may call the reviewer’s impartiality into question, at least the reader of the review was made aware of the possible bias and could factor that into a judgment about the review and the book. The reader of the first review would not have had the same information.
I was appalled by that first review. Of course, I don’t know whether the fault lies with the newspaper or with the reviewer. Did the reviewer disclose the relationship to the editors and they chose not to run the disclaimer? Or did the reviewer just not tell them? Either way, though, the reading public was done a disservice.
On the other hand, I suspect that this is a common problem, or at least not limited to that one newspaper. The world of writers is in many ways small, and reviewers are often acquainted with the authors of books they are asked to review. I have turned down some reviewing assignments for that reason. And if I do write a review of a book by a friend, I’m sure to let the editor know. Last year The Nervous Breakdown asked me to write a review. I am friendly with the author and I told the editors that this was the case. They included a note to that effect with the review. Correctly, in my opinion. But if you read a review and you don’t see such a disclaimer, can you assume that the reviewer is impartial? No, apparently not. There’s a pretty good chance, it seems to me, that the review will be biased in some way. No wonder book reviews are disappearing. If you can’t believe them anyway, what good are they?
Note that we’re not talking about Amazon.com reader comments here, which could be posted by anyone—the author’s mother or his lover or even the author himself. I’m not even talking about reviews on a personal blog. I’m concerned here with real book reviews in real, edited publications that make some claim to being credible.
Perhaps there is a Code of Ethics for book reviewers. I looked at the website of the National Book Critics Circle and didn’t find one, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. In the meantime, though, I very much like the approach of Rain Taxi Review of Books, which includes the following in its guidelines for reviewers:

Rain Taxi is dedicated to publishing unbiased, objective reviews. If you have a connection with the author or press, please disclose it upon submission. Not all relationships constitute conflicts of interest, but we respectfully request your candor regarding any relationships. If you are friends with an author and would like to highlight their work, please feel free to email us and suggest a review, or consider pitching an interview instead.

That, it seems to me, is the right way to go, and I feel I can give some credence to reviews I read in Rain Taxi. This other publication I mentioned—not so much.