Review

Writers on Writing: Collected Essays from The New York Times (Writers on Writing (Times Books Hardcover))

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Any collection of essays by fine writers on the art of writing is
guaranteed to be varied, highly idiosyncratic, totally personal and
of great interest to the layman reader.

This collection of 41 such pieces is all of those things --- but it
could have been a whole lot more. There are plenty of quotable bits
here and a number of essays that hold up entirely; but the
opportunity to make this a truly coherent and consistent collection
of essays on the craft of writing has been regrettably
missed.

On the varsity A-team of famous writers included, we find such
names as Bellow, Doctorow, Oates, Saroyan, Updike, Vonnegut,
Walker, and Wiesel. There is a good "bench" of lesser-known but
still prominent writers (Louise Erdrich, Thomas Fleming, Ward Just,
Barbara Kingsolver, Sara Paretsky, Annie Proulx, Hilma Wolitzer)
--- and a number of other names that were frankly unfamiliar, at
least to this reviewer. Predictably, there is no absolute
correlation between the fame of the author and the quality of the
essay. Joyce Carol Oates is delightful on the benefits of running
to her literary life, but William Saroyan (represented by an
excerpt from his last manuscript) is disappointing. Alice Hoffman
is eloquent on her cancer diagnosis and its effect on her life;
John Updike (writing in the persona of his famous character Henry
Bech) is clever but inconsequential.

There are worthwhile contributions from Annie Proulx, James Salter,
and Carl Hiaasen, among others. Barbara Kingsolver is delightful on
the question of writing an "unchaste" novel, and Louise Erdrich
delves into the language of her American Indian forbears with great
insight. No one, alas, comes close to matching the impact of my own
personal favorite quotation from a fine writer about writing. As W.
Somerset Maugham said, "There are three rules for writing a good
novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are."

The collection is weakened, however, by some omissions that might
have been very easily rectified. There is no explanation that these
pieces are drawn from the New York Times Sunday Book Review,
the primary show window of American literary commentary. They are
not dated; instead the writers are merely presented in alphabetical
order, a curious and unsatisfactory tactic. Noting the dates of
publication would have set these pieces more firmly into the
literary landscape. The space limitations imposed by the Book
Review
publication, as well as the nature of the Book
Review's
reading audience, were certainly a factor in how these
writers approached their task. Readers of the collection should
have that information.

A line or two of introductory biographical data on each writer
might also have been helpful. John Darnton, culture editor of the
Times, does little to set the scene meaningfully in his
preface. And the selection of writers is skewed exclusively toward
fiction writers; even those like Thomas Fleming, who have done
significant work in nonfiction, reflect here only on the craft of
fiction. Do not historians, biographers, and social critics count
as writers who might have something interesting to say about
writing?

So you can enjoy much that is contained in this bag of literary
potato chips. But the flavor is a tad monotonous and the packaging
unimaginative.

Reviewed by Robert Finn (Robertfinn@aol.com) on January 24, 2011

Writers on Writing: Collected Essays from The New York Times (Writers on Writing (Times Books Hardcover))
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  • Publication Date: May 1, 2001
  • Genres: Essays
  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Times Books
  • ISBN-10: 0805067418
  • ISBN-13: 9780805067415