Wednesday, April 30, 2008

What, more tags?

Yes. This one from Charles Lambert. And it has the virtue of being easy:

1. Pick up the nearest book.
2. Open to page 123
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the next three sentences.
5. Tag five people, and acknowledge who tagged you.

Or at least it is apparently easy. As it happens, I'm rearranging things right now, and have stacks of books to both sides of my keyboard. It's hard to say what's "nearest."

One possibility is Jonathan Carroll's novel Outside the Dog Museum, which gives us:

I saw him almost as soon as I stepped out of the elevator into the lobby. Sitting near the reception desk smoking a cigarette, he looked more like a fifteen-year-old skateboarder from Laguna Beach than the Crown Prince of Saru. In his late twenties, wearing faded jeans, a black Purdue Boilermaker's sweatshirt, and high-top basketball sneakers that were a cartoon of color, flashy arrows, lines, and zigzags.

Another possibility is Tim Weiner's history of the CIA, Legacy of Ashes:

At the end of 1955, President Eisenhower changed the CIA's marching orders. Recognizing that covert action could not undermine the Kremlin, he revised the rules written at the start of the Cold War. The new order, labeled NSC 5412/2 and dates December 28, 1955, remained in effect for fifteen years.

Or it could be Rosenkrantz and Satran's The Last Word on First Names:

This onetime poetic name* of Celtic origin, the name of the angel who governs the month of June, is now showing signs of age, relegated to playing grandma's on TV sitcoms.

MURPHY. One of the boldest, brightest, and breeziest of the Irish surname names, thanks to the character played so convincingly by Candice Bergen on Murphy Brown--and to then-Vice-President Dan Quayle for keeping it in the headlines so long.

(*that entry was for MURIEL, by the way.)

Or it could be Mrs. Byrne's Dictionary of Unusual, Obscure, and Preposterous Words:

malnola n. a vague feeling of mental discomfort

malversation n. corruption in office (politics)

mamamouchi n. 1. A pompous-sounding, though bogus, Turkish title.

Or--oh, that's enough.

If you've read this far and feel like responding, consider yourself tagged.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Ah! More Dismal Statistics

One of the last posts on Tess Gerritsen's blog (she has withdrawn from blogging because she found the environment increasingly hostile and humorless) was on the topic of a survey undertaken by Novelists, Inc. Never heard of NINC? Neither have most people. To join, you need not only to be published, but multipublished, and the presses publishing you need to pay a hefty minimum advance on all books they acquire (not just yours), and so on. Joining isn't easy.

So, this is an association of rather successful novelists. You should probably hop over and read the original post; but if you can't be bothered, here's the bottom line. NINC did a survey of 100 of its members. The median number of novels published by this group was 16 books per author(!). The response rate was 100%.

The question asked was if they could support themselves through their writing.

31% of them answered "Yes" or "Probably yes."

69% of them answered "No" or "Probably no."

So, for all of you who gave up your dreams of being poets so you could pursue something more practical, such as writing novels...

...poetry doesn't look all that bad after all. And at least no one wants to know why your poem hasn't been made into a movie yet.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

MNW and McGilloway

This is old news to those who read the Macmillan New Writers blog, but since I know not all the visitors here frequent that site...

Publishing News UK has an excellent article on the Macmillan New Writing imprint in general and on Brian McGilloway in particular.

What the article fails to mention is that Brian's Borderlands is also the first MNW title to sell on to a US publisher: the hardback edition will be released by Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's Press some time in the autumn. This is one my fellow Norte Americanos will want to buy, but you need not write it on your calendars--I promise to give a shout here when it appears.

Friday, April 25, 2008

A Half-Dozen Random Facts

Alis Hawkins has tagged me to present six random things about myself. Since everything about me is random, this is a fairly easy task.

Before I get on to it, however, this might be a good place for me to mention how much I enjoyed Ms. Hawkins' book Testament. I promised myself when I started that I wouldn't review MNW books on this blog--though I have twice reviewed non-MNW books written by MNW authors. But it wouldn't really be a review, would it, if I just happened to let slip in passing that Testament was a great read in every regard?

1. Right in the middle of where my fingerprints ought to be I have little nubs that stick out. I have these on my toes as well. Palmists refer to these as "sensitive pads". My belief is there is gecko blood somewhere in my family tree.

2. I have mastered the ability to read in the shower. A character in my work-in-progress does this as well, and in one scene acts out how you accomplish this while washing your hair.

3. I've been a vegetarian for...oh, ouch: 39 years.

4. I started college as a music major. And I haven't touched a musical instument in at least 12 years.

5. I have utterly useless smatterings of a dozen languages--heavy on Russian and French (which sounds as though I'm a salad), as well as Spanish obscenities, but with bits of Chinese, Bahasa, and what-have-you tossed in. This has developed into a language called "foreign". Pamela and I can converse in this tongue without fear that anyone anywhere can understand us. In fact, we did so once in Thailand while surrounded by an annoying American tour group, and kept it up for about three hours. Once they decided we didn't understand English, they argued amongst themselves as to our national origin. (I believe they settled on Eastern Europe.)

6. I'm a natural-phenomena geek (and so is Pamela, but she's a geophysicist, and therefore can claim it's part of her work). Being native Californians, we've been in dozens of earthquakes and have been up-close-and-personal with many wildfires; but we've also visited several active volcanic eruptions; sat out two hurricanes; climbed a cliff to watch one very disappointing tsunami; took Christmas vacation in a little town outside Fairbanks, Alaska to watch the Northern Lights; and have been lucky enough to see two total solar eclipses. We're also fond of lightning storms. (Still on our to-do list: tornadoes, Southern Lights.)

I'll tag six other people as soon as I can think of them. Meanwhile, as a visual aid to accompany Aliya's post on Neil Ayres, here's a picture of Dr. Bunsen Honeydew.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Ben Yagoda (My favorite books on writing)

Ben Yagoda, The Sound on the Page: Style and Voice in Writing.

This isn’t a book on writing in the general sense; it is an exploration of a single topic, and it’s like no other book I’ve ever seen on ‘style’ or ‘voice,’ or whatever you choose to call this elusive quality. I first read this book when published back in 2004, and when I finished it, I promptly picked it up and read it again, for sheer enjoyment.

Who needs another book on style? As it turns out, anybody who really cares about the issue. As Yagoda discovered when he read through the existing books on style or voice, there tend to be two classes: The Strunk-and-White school, which emphasizes clarity, transparency, and avoiding anything that calls attention to the writer; and the Follow-Your-Bliss school, which urges self-expression at the expense of the reader. None of the writers we prize are in either category.

I can’t think of a better way to explain Yagoda’s approach to the topic than to quote the opening paragraphs of his Introduction:

This book began with a single and simple observation: it is frequently the case that writers entertain, move and inspire us less by what they say than how they say it. What they say is information and ideas and (in the case of fiction) story and characters. How they say it is style.

For the first of many times, I present an example: Ernest Hemingway. What is Hemingway’s content? He has some fishing and war stories that are pretty good, if a little short in the action department, and some ideas about honorable and dishonorable behavior that would puzzle many contemporary readers. His characters, especially in the novels and most especially in the later novels, tend to be tiresome. But his style!…

Yagoda himself has a marvelous style that slips rather than veers between conversational and erudite. In addition to close readings of passages, he interviewed more than 40 writers for this book, and his definition of ‘writer’ includes some surprising figures (such as Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, or comic essayist Dave Barry).

He makes some points I’d never considered before—for example, the fact that dialogue dilutes style. Dialogue tends to follow the rules and realities of speech, and, moreover, is a representation of how the characters would speak rather than the narrative voice of the book. This may explain why so many stylish literary novels are short on dialogue, and why so many voice-y novels with ample dialogue are also first-person narratives, so that a big piece of the dialogue is in the same voice as the narrative. (As in Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises, Catcher in the Rye…).

His discussion of cliché phrases is also well worth reading. Yagoda contends that clichés pass through phases, beginning as fresh observations, then becoming trendy, then becoming cliché…and finally retiring to become parts of speech that are almost as neutral as well-worn words. He notes:

Evelyn Waugh…advocated sections of narrative written to conventional standards punctuated by moments when the author steps forward. In the former, he maintained, the most unobtrusive language was best, up to and including (gasp!) clichés…

He then goes on to quote the master, Waugh himself:

I think to be oversensitive about clichés is like being oversensitive about table manners. It comes from keeping second-rate company. Professional reviewers read so many bad books in the course of duty that they develop an unhealthy craving for arresting phrases. There are many occasions in writing when one needs an unobtrusive background to action, when the landscape must become conventionalized if the foreground is to have the right prominence. I do not believe that a serious writer has ever been shy of an expression because it has been used before. It is the writer of advertisements who is always straining to find bizarre epithets for commonplace objects.

(I would have shortened that if I could have, but what would I cut from that marvelous torrent? Go, Evelyn.)

Yagoda would never urge, ala Strunk and White, that there is a right style that ought to be adopted. (In fact, he points out that EB White himself was a stylish writer…and that Orwell, in his famous essay Politics and the English Language, happily ignores some of the rules he is expounding.) But he does try to systematize a bit, at least identifying the traits that make up a writing style. The seven he discusses at some length are:

Competence: The basic skill of the writer in handling language.
Iconoclasm: The unexpectedness of irregularity of the constructions.
Extroversion: The “loudness” or “quietness” of the writing itself.
Feeling: The divide between rational and emotive elements.
Single-mindedness: Focus versus elaboration.
Tension: The degree of complacency or edge/irony in the prose.
Solicitousness: The posture assumed before the reader.

He then suggests that

For each of the seven scales, there’s a certain zone of expectation—a place where “transparent” writers gather and presumably look right through each other. Styles that are close to one or the other pole being to attract readers’ attention. And styles that are all the way to one side seem odd, or maybe even pathological…

Normally, writers with extreme tendencies will mute them in the process of revisions; others, however, will retain or even aggravate them. Writers of this kind face one of two prospects: a life of rejection notes and marginalization, or the hope that somewhere along the line, an editor, critic, or reviewer will decide they are a genius and start the ball rolling.

I’m not sure how helpful this book is to writers; it certainly isn’t a how-to book. But it’s a hell of a lot of fun—and wonderfully well-written.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Understanding US Politics, Part II

At last...the present era. And now image and reality really start to war with each other:

George Bush, Sr.
Image: Confused, unintelligent, and ‘wimpy’—insufficiently tough to follow a genuine hero like Reagan …but
* Joined the Navy during World War II on his 18th birthday; became the youngest navy pilot
* Was shot down, rescued, and proceeded to fly a total of 58 combat missions; awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, three Air Medals, and a Presidential Citation
* Served as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency
* For a time was Adjunct Professor at Rice University
* Ordered the US military invasion of Panama
* Ordered the invasion of Kuwait and Iraq

Bill Clinton
Image: Classic big-government bleeding-heart liberal…but
* Failed to reform health care in the US (largely because of mismanagement by his wife—and since when do spouses assume executive roles?)
* Balanced the budget by following the advice of the Fed Chairman, and made the government fiscally responsible for the first time in decades
* Flung cruise missiles hither and yon, and dragged the US into war in the Balkans
* Dismantled the nation’s welfare system in a more savage way than any right-winger could have imagined
* Presided over an astonishing expansion of prisons and mandatory sentencing laws that gave the US the world’s largest prison population
* Encouraged the Drug Enforcement Agency to provide more of its own funds by seizing Americans' cars, houses, and bank accounts
* And, my favorite: Happily signed a bill that prevented anyone who had been convicted of a drug offense from ever receiving college loans. (Yep, that’ll help ‘em climb out of the ghetto…)

George W. Bush
Image: Archconservative tough guy…but
* Refused to answer questions about his drug use (unlike Clinton, who was accused of smoking marijuana—but, of course, didn’t inhale—George W. was a well-known drunk and reputed to be a cokehead)
* Is rumored to have enrolled in the National Guard to avoid Vietnam, and then not done his duty in the Guard; has done little to prove these charges false
* Vastly expanded federal powers (something most conservatives have long feared)
* Vastly expanded the powers of the Presidency (something most conservatives have long feared)
* Has furiously attacked States’ Rights whenever he happened to disagree personally with the issue at stake. (The pre-eminence of States’ Rights is generally considered to be a key plank in the conservative platform. States’ Rights haven’t suffered such a series of defeats since the Civil Rights Act of 1964.)
* Has—in violation of a cherished conservative principle—decided to engage the US in “nation-building” abroad
* Has spent money at an astonishing rate while cutting taxes, thus more than reversing the gains of the Clinton years, and has thereby crashed the dollar to an unbelievable low
* Has run the national debt up to $9.2 trillion, which is roughly $75,000 per household.

The Bushies may hate the Clintonians and vice-versa, but in fact the Bush Administration adopted all of its moves from the Clintons—spin control, the insertion of divisive and irrelevant issues into discussions, and blatant character assassination of anyone who stands in the way of the President. Since 9/11, Bush has been able to play the character-assassination game more freehandedly (the anyone-who-disagrees-with-us-hates-America approach), but I’m sure Clinton would have done the same if he’d had the chance.

The most curious thing is how the images of the person stick no matter what the facts of their life. (Just consider the case of 'wimpy' George Bush, Sr. compared to 'heroic' Ronald Reagan.)

Bill Clinton is perceived as a self-indulgent baby-boomer and a bit of a slacker. His actual life is a rags-to-riches, Horatio Alger, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps story that you’d think would have the conservatives coddling him. But facts don’t enter into it.

On the other hand, George W. Bush is perceived as a straight-shooting, pious, regular guy. He’s really a fact-dodging spoiled preppy frat boy who inherited his money and on his own wouldn’t be capable of holding down a job at McDonalds. But facts don’t enter into it.

My opinion? I’m not in the habit of quoting bumper stickers. But one a while back caught my attention:

Bill Clinton: No Longer the Worst President in History

I can hardly wait to see where November will leave us, how the actions of our next President will conflict with their image, and how people will manage to ignore it.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Understanding US Politics, Part I

As a non-partisan public service in this US election year, I'd like to offer the following analysis of the fascinating role of perception, as opposed to reality, in American politics. I will skip JFK because emotions still run so high on that particular President that I'm afraid someone might shoot at me. (That's why we have no Grassy Knoll near our house.) I'm also skipping Jimmy Carter...because I can't think of anything to say.

In American politics, it’s all about image—and once that image is fixed in the public mind, it doesn’t much matter what you actually do or say. Our most startling “lefty” moves have come from “conservative” presidents, and vice-versa. It’s like having a Magic Cloak of Invisibility: anything you do that doesn’t fit your image is either not noticed, or misinterpreted so as to be consistent with your image. Even your past is ignored if it doesn't fit your image.

The image industry reached ridiculous proportions with Clinton I and Bush II, but it has a long history—and one I argue parallels the adoption and spread of television. I’d like to cite a few highlights:

Dwight Eisenhower
Image: Former Commander-in-Chief of the Allied Forces, Archconservative hawk…but
* Coined a lasting term when he warned, in his Presidential farewell speech to the nation, against the dangers of an emerging “military-industrial complex.”
* Kept the country from getting embroiled in Vietnam, and noted, “It was generally conceded that had an election been held, Ho Chi Minh would have been elected Premier.”

Lyndon Johnson
Image: Classic bleeding-heart liberal…but
* Vastly escalated US involvement in Vietnam into a full-scale war
* Instituted a draft policy that disproportionately fell on the poor and minorities
* Expanded government spying on citizens who expressed opinions that did not agree with those of the White House
* Bloated the military budget in a way Eisenhower couldn’t have imagined

Richard Nixon
Image: King of the Archconservative hawks…but
* Imposed wage/price controls on the US economy (pinko!)
* Banned US germ-warfare research
* Cut the link of US currency to gold
* Instituted the policy of détente with the Soviet Union
* Began the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaties (SALT) with the Soviet Union
* Sat down with Mao Tse-tung and normalized relations with Communist China.

Ronald Reagan
Image: Archconservative tough guy…but
* Presided over the illegal sale of strategic weapons to our enemies (Iran-Contra)
* Created a budget deficit of historic proportions through profligate spending while cutting taxes
* Sat out World War II serving in the 1st Motion Picture Division in Culver City, California, as well as a stint in the notoriously risky Provisional Task Force Show Unit in Burbank, California
* Was President of the Screen Actors Guild, the Hollywood actors’ union
* After American Marines were killed in a bombing, abruptly withdrew US peacekeeping forces from Lebanon. (Though he did show his tough guy credentials when, in a brave move, he matched US forces against the full military might of the nation of Grenada (population 110,000)

Here where I live in Orange County--notoriously the most conservative county in the State of California--they renamed the airport after actor John Wayne. Wayne, whose first name was actually "Marion," grew up in the tree-lined suburb of Glendale, California, and put in his time in the school of hard knocks by attending the University of Southern California, USC (which, because of its cost and elitism, is generally said to stand for the University of Spoiled Children).

The local power structure explained that they renamed the airport John Wayne "because of what he represented." I'm not sure exactly what they mean by that. What I am sure of is that while Jimmy Stewart, Clark Gable, Tyrone Power, Henry Fonda, and Mel Brooks were getting shot at, John Wayne stayed home making movies.

Wayne's apologists claim he tried to enlist three times but was rejected because of physical problems, notably a back injury (from a surfing accident in Newport Beach. Them thar waves got quite a kick, buckaroo.) Since he continued to do most of his own stunts, this seems pretty unlikely, and is contradicted by military records (he was never given a physical deferment of any sort. You can read the facts about his deferments here.)

I point this out not to criticize John Wayne, but to emphasize that it's all about image. When the powers-that-be in Orange County decided to name the airport after a hero, they chose to ignore real heroes in favor of someone who played heroes in the movies. Welcome to US politics.

If you care, there are now direct flights from John Wayne Airport to Ronald Reagan Airport.

Next: The Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton(?)-Bush(?) era

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Where I Write

If I recall, back when Roger, in collaboration with his cat and coffeepot, was posting his first videos on the writers life, someone (possibly the estimable MFW Curran) suggested we show our workspaces. That brings up, as we say here on the West Coast, a lot of "intimacy issues" for me, but nonetheless I'm going to take a deep breath and Show All.

This is my primary workspace--where I do most of my consulting work, fiddle about on the internet, and answer my e-mail. In a normal household, this room would be the dining room. But we have never done anything so formal as to dine, so in our house it has been converted to a home office.

Sort of a mess, isn't it? Note the "Black Shelf," which is filled with the MNW novels. And, as of Testament, it's now full, too. Aliya starts a new shelf. Somewhere.

Note also that my view is of the corner of the room. I can't be trusted with a window; I won't get a damn thing done if physical reality has any chance to tamper with my monkey-like brain.

I write some fiction here, but not often. That's because I share this space with Pamela, whose chair is directly behind mine. And she's often on the phone, and that's sometimes a bit distracting. (At the moment, for instance, she's actually threatening someone. And it's about time, too, I say.) And, since I mumble and mutter and twitch while I write fiction, she probably wouldn't want me writing behind her anyway. Here's Pamela's desk:

She has another real desk in a real office, but this is where she does most of her work. You will also note that she is even sloppier than I am, and piles things on the floor. This is, I find, a key to harmony between boys and girls: always find a girl just slightly sloppier than you. It avoids a lot of recrimination.

But most of the time when I'm writing fiction, I'm doing it in the guest room upstairs:

This is slightly less sloppy than my desk downstairs. It's main drawback is that sometimes, as the name suggests, there are, um, guests in it. And that really puts a crimp in the whole thing.

We keep our coffeepot in the kitchen, and it refuses to offer suggestions of any original prose. We have no cat, although we have two birds, but their contribution is limited to hammering their beaks on the desk (apparently imitating the act of typing--I think they are under the impression I'm pecking at something edible).

There it is. Pretty dull, really. But now you all seem morally obligated to Show Yours.

And see if you can get Faye Booth to re-post hers from long ago. She has what appears to be an Edgar Allen Poe action figure, as well as a wealth of other inscrutable items. Now that's how a writer's desk ought to look.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The Autobiographical Fallacy

If this makes any sense: all my characters are exactly who I'd be if I were them.

It's a little like the tricks actors use of summoning up emotions from their own lives, so that the grief their character feels at the loss of a lover is fueled by the grief they once felt when Fluffy was hit by a car. Characters are vessels, and we pour ourselves into them, but the vessel is still shaped like the character, not like us.

Oh, well. This silly confusion of fiction with memoir has come up in two recent posts elsewhere: Aliya Whiteley's discussion with her writing group, and Emma Darwin's musings on the topic. Go check 'em out.

(Emma's post was spurred by articles by Linda Grant and Melissa Benn. It seems a whole lot of writers are increasingly chafed by this issue...)

Monday, April 7, 2008

What’s Your Self-Image Age?

My maternal grandmother was a beautiful woman in her youth, and lucky to be born at the right time for her looks—she was petite, slender, a bit flat-chested, and had a lovely oval face. With a cap of short, dark hair, she was the perfect picture of femininity for the 1920s in the US; the image of a flapper. If she'd smoked, her ideal accessory would have been one of those foot-long cigarette holders.

By the time I knew her she was still beautiful but looked like...well, somebody’s grandmother. And she occasionally told me, “I get up in the morning, go into the bathroom to wash my face, and look up into the mirror and say, ‘Who is that old lady?’ “

She passed this trait on to my aunt. Once, when my aunt was out shopping, a kid came racing by on a skateboard. This kid’s friend yelled, “Watch out, stupid! You almost hit that old lady!” Naturally, my aunt stopped and looked around to find the poor woman who had been so endangered.

When my grandmother looked in the mirror, was she surprised that she wasn’t twenty? Or thirty? What age did she think she was supposed to be?

I’ve been wondering about this lately, because I think the issue runs deeper than mere looks. In fact, I’ve begun to think our self-image coalesces around some particular age, and then never really progresses much; there’s some ‘age’ in the back of our mind that seems to feel right, and most of us, like my grandmother, are surprised to find we are no longer that age.

I know what my Self-Image Age is. It’s seventeen. Old enough to drive, but not old enough to buy cigarettes legally, and certainly not old enough to vote or drink. I’m constantly surprised when policemen call me “Sir” rather than “You little punk.”

This, of course, is how I manage to continue being so immature and irresponsible. I’ve still got my whole life ahead of me, and, in general, I think I’m unusually gifted and precocious…for someone who hasn’t even started college yet.

This also explains why I’m always finding new bands I like. I’m told by the music industry that responsible adults do not listen to any band they didn’t hear before the age of thirty. But it’s okay. I’m seventeen.

I’m acquainted with people whose Self-Image Ages are in their twenties or thirties, and I know a few people who will never really come into their own until they hit their mid-sixties and their Inner Grumpy Old Men are allowed out.

If I were in the field of psychology, I’m sure I could turn this half-baked idea of Self-Image Age into a new therapeutic modality. Why spend all that time trying to heal your Inner Child when what you might really need is to heal your despairing Inner Forty-Four-Year-Old? And why not deal with your Inner Forty-Four-Year-Old while you’re still twenty-five? Or why not get your Self-Image Age to grow the hell up? Why do hypnotic regression when you could do hypnotic progression? The possiblities are endless.

Alas for the field of psychology, I’m too busy writing fiction. And this blog. But the next time you read something of mine and notice the inevitable flaws, remember: it’s pretty good for a teenager.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Francine Prose (My favorite books on writing)

Francine Prose. Reading Like a Writer.

Francine Prose is a marvelous writer of both novels and that neglected form, the novella. (Three Pigs in Five Days is a novella of which I'm especially fond.) She manages to be literary without drawing attention to her writing—a neat trick, given that often her language is so ironic and her descriptions so spot-on that you want to stop and savor them.

This is her book on writing, which isn’t a book on writing at all. It’s a book about “close reading,” about looking at prose in detail to see how writers achieve their effects. (Our own Tim Stretton is a major advocate of the practice, as can be seen in his reviews of what can be learned from particular books.) Close reading is how most writers learned their craft in the days before college writing courses--and those same college writing courses ought to encourage more reading along with all the writing.

On some writing forums, you will find the majority of voices claiming that they can't read when they write—either because they fear it will interfere with thinking about their own story, or because they are anxious that their prose will be—gasp!—influenced. I’ve always been baffled by both of these fears, and I was happy that to find that Ms. Prose agrees:

I’ve also heard fellow writers say that they cannot read while working on a book of their own for fear that Tolstoy or Shakespeare might influence them. I’ve always hoped they would influence me, and I wonder if I would have taken so happily to being a writer if it meant that I couldn’t read for the years it might take to complete a novel.

The chapters are topics: Words… Sentences… Paragraphs… Narration… Character… Dialogue… Details… Gesture… and two final chapters entitled Learning from Chekhov and Reading for Courage. And the chapters are exactly what they sound like—almost microscopically close reading of extracts from novels and short stories.

Now, Ms. Prose is a bit sniffy about the whole topic of Literature (note capital "L"). The extracts are mainly from Flaubert, Woolf, Babel, Austen, and others safely dead and interred in the canon—though she does stoop to include Philip Roth and John Le Carre. But she has some blind spots, too--for example, she is a little dismissive of Elmore Leonard (“highly skilled and competent but less than first-rate”). That's a judgment of his place in the canon rather than an assessment of what can be learned from reading him. I would argue that a close reading of Leonard’s dialogue would be one of the best ways to learn about subtext and sly characterization, and that aspect of his craft is valuable regardless of his standing in the pantheon of Literature.

No matter. I find her book engrossing, and the techniques she employs in looking at a text are applicable far beyond the texts she happens to choose. And, if you don't care for this sort of thing, take a look at her fiction instead.