At long last I have seized the opportunity to read the Atlantic fiction issue, which has sat neglected on my coffee table, patiently awaiting my attention, for far too many days. Much as I hate the fact that the Atlantic no longer serves up a short story a month, their dedicated fiction issue almost makes up for it . This year’s line-up does not disappoint: there’s a refreshingly cranky piece by Paul Theroux on e-books and the future of reading, a creepy T.C. Boyle story and a piece by Joyce Carol Oates (one blogger waggishly wondered if including stories by Boyle and Oates is some kind of lit-mag requirement), and Richard Bausch’s essay “How to Write in 700 Easy Lessons: The Case Against Writing Manuals.” In it, Bausch argues that despite the success and proliferation of books that promise to teach you how to write a [fill-in-genre-here] novel in 15 easy steps or offer to share the “secrets” of successful novelists, writing is not a skill that can be taught in the manner of model airplane construction or home repair. The whole essay is well worth a read, but I’ll cut to the chase:
“My advice? Put the manuals and the how-to books away. Read the writers themselves, whose work and example are all you really need if you want to write. And wanting to write is so much more than a pose. 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.”
I don’t disagree with Bausch’s recommendation that aspiring writers should be broad and assiduous readers, and I nearly stood and cheered at his last line; good writing does undermine cultural stereotypes. But on further reflection, the whole polemic, well-crafted and funny as it was, rang a bit hollow. I somehow doubt that books that peddle “shortcuts” to being a good writer are exerting an especially malign influence on the world of letters. It’s unlikely that novels written solely according to the literary equivalent of paint-by-numbers get published, much less endure (though there are, I realize, exceptions to every rule). Most aspiring writers are readers (right?) and most writers figure out that the path they’ve chosen is not only devoid of the kind of shortcuts Bausch deplores, it’s uphill over brutal terrain. If books on writing are useful triggers to imagination/discipline, are they deserving of scorn?
Since the vast majority of the folks who read this blog are writers, I’m interested to know what you think: are there writing guides that you swear by? Manuals you recommend? Do you agree with Bausch that that how-to books foster cookie cutter writing? Do you think, more broadly, that good writing can be taught at all?