Monday, November 10, 2008

Review: The Art of Fiction by John Gardner

Note: This post originally appeared on my discontinued website maartensity.com. The published date and time has been adjusted to match the original.

Raymond Carver's mentor was a famous teacher of creative writing, and here he gives no-nonsense advice for writers-in-the-making. It's up to the reader to decide if he or she has what it takes. Given Gardner's high standards, it might take some courage to respond in the affirmative ...

Finished chapter 5, "Common errors", today. It gives the amateur writer a thorough exposition of all-too-familiar bad habits. Sentences that start with the infinite form of the verb (“Feeling afraid Sandy switched on the bedroom light”), sentences written in the passive tense, lack of sentence variety, over-explanation, and many more faults revealed—sometimes with punishing wit, and often with near-religious fervour. Don't misunderstand: this is very good advice.

Edit: This book repays rereading. It is not merely a textbook, more like the advice of a stern, opinionated friend. He may not be popular for his views, but one day you will thank him, in your mind, when he has long since passed beyond the boundaries he outlined for you.

"Whatever his genius, the writer unfamiliar with the highest effects possible is doomed to search out lesser effects."

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Review: Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

Note: This post originally appeared on my discontinued website maartensity.com. The published date and time has been adjusted to match the original.

The effect of Lahiri's stories is comparable to those of Raymond Carver ("A Temporary Matter" seemed the most Carver-like, and is brilliantly effective) in the sense that the author successfully wrenches emotion from the reader even when the story seemed destined for a clich├ęd ending. The twist comes, and it is usually related to emotion, rather than simply plot. You don't see it coming because you didn't realise until too late that the narrator is also talking about you! As such, Lahiri manages to take particular events and raise them to general, sometimes universal significance.

This collection of stories, for which Lahiri won the Pullitzer Prize in 2000, is not only enjoyable but an interesting study in writing craft. The final story "The Third and Final Continent" is written from the viewpoint of an Indian Man, and creates a personality that is convincingly male (Lahiri is female), without blurting out the secrets of its created persona. The short fiction writer will find the craft behind this achievement of interest.