Booknotes: Favorite Writing How-to Books Part 3

[Read the entire series.]

A reminder: In this series, I am sharing various books I have found helpful for my own writing practice. As I wrote in the first post, these are not necessarily all traditional writing how-to books. However, they do all deal with the art and craft of writing in some way or another.

In 2014, I wrote a six-part series about bibliomemoirs published from 1990-onwards till early-2014. This month, we have three bibliomemoirs featured in that series — Rebecca Mead on George Eliot; Alexander McCall Smith on W H Auden; and Janet Malcolm on Chekhov.

First, why bibliomemoirs? Read Part 1 of the series for that. For now, let me share Joyce Carol Oates’ definition here:

Rarely attempted, and still more rarely successful, is the bibliomemoir — a subspecies of literature combining criticism and biography with the intimate, confessional tone of autobiography. The most engaging bibliomemoirs establish the writer’s voice in counterpoint to the subject, with something more than adulation or explication at stake.

Second, why bibliomemoirs as writing how-to? I find that when we dive deep into how a particular literary work has been written — peeling back the layers of biography, history, writing process, narrative structure, etc. — we gain a much deeper understanding of both the work and the art and craft of writing. It helps, of course, when the literary work is one we also enjoy and admire.

1/ My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead

Of the recent crop, this is the most critically-acclaimed book. This is, partly, because there’s less of the “my life” and more of the subject in it. But, also, because of the subject itself — ‘Middlemarch‘, George Eliot’s masterpiece, is, at 500-some pages, a daunting book for today’s average reader. Eliot herself continues to be one of the most fascinating female authors of the Western Literary Canon and Mead gives us many, many biographical details of Eliot and how they influenced her writing of this book.

Mead writes in an even, measured way and has done thorough research to back up her assertions, queries, and exploration. All in all, despite the zealous, evangelistic overtones and some of the PR gimmicks, this is a book worth reading if you’re not a literary expert and want a better understanding of the subject and Eliot’s writing influences, approaches, and processes.

Personally, I first reread ‘Middlemarch‘ over a 4-day Thanksgiving break about ten years ago. It wasn’t a case of returning to a much-loved book as it had been for Mead. In fact, I’d struggled with it as a teenager. What prompted me to try this behemoth again was this glowing tribute from Virginia Woolf. And, while I cannot say that it has changed my life, not even after revisiting it recently due to Mead’s evangelism, it will remain one of my favorite novels of all time.

Eliot is more forgiving of Lydgate’s presumption in Middlemarch than she was of her own rebellion in Coventry. In the person of Lydgate, she shows how necessary youthful assertion is, and how inevitable is its expression, particularly in the case of a young person who has realized early on that books are stuff, and life is stupid. Lydgate is on the side of progress and open-mindedness; when it comes to science, at least, he stands against the creeping provincialism of the mind. Lydgate is undone not just by arrogance–he thinks he knows better than everyone else–but also by the fact that he expects everyone else to be better than they are. Being above pettiness, he expects others to be so also. And he expects to be judged fairly, by the patrons of Middlemarch’s inns as well as the members of its boardrooms. His error, as it unfolds in the book, lies in not realizing what an immense and impossible expectation that is.

2/ What W H Auden Can Do For You by Alexander McCall Smith

A true pleasure, this one. It is also one of the rare bibliomemoirs that focuses on a poet. McCall Smith’s many novels reference a lot of Auden’s poetry, so it is clear that he is not only a big fan, but also something of an Auden scholar. I remember listening to a podcast a few years ago when McCall Smith described meeting the old, disheveled Auden at a reading or some such public event. And how, even though Auden shuffled onto the stage in his carpet slippers, flies undone and food stains on his clothes, people were so in awe of him that, as soon as Auden began to speak, it was as if none of that mattered.

The book is part of a book series by Princeton University called ‘Writers on Writers‘, which includes other similar homages. The beauty of this book is that it appeals to non-academics and scholars alike; Auden fans and non-Auden fans alike. While enriching our understanding of various Auden poems, it also gives us insight into McCall Smith’s own evolution and inspiration as a writer. One of the best on this list, I promise you.

His particular insight was was that we need to be at home; all his concerns with divisions within ourselves, with the tragic flaws in our nature, with the thwarting of love–all these point to the need that he felt we had within us to locate ourselves in a place we could live in with love, with people with whom we could share. This insight was evident in the early Auden but became stronger and more clearly expressed with the passage of time. It is there, explicitly stated, in that line in “Streams” in which he talks about the need that people have for their holy places; it suffuses the later poems in which he celebrates domesticity, the living space, our habitat.

Oh, and if you have not read Auden, you will know of him from the poem made famous in the movie, ‘Four Weddings and A Funeral’: ‘Stop All the Clocks’.

And you can also read about one of my favorite Auden poems.

3/ Reading Chekhov: A Critical Journey by Janet Malcolm

I debated about whether to include this. But it does strike me as less a full-fledged literary critique and more an appreciation of Chekhov, along with a Russia travel memoir. Malcolm is an author and journalist and currently writes for the New Yorker. If you are a writer of any stripe, and you enjoy Chekhov, get this book. It covers literary criticism through close readings of many of his works, along with a lot of biographical details through first-hand research in Russia. And we get Malcolm’s personal anecdotes of travel through a country that is fraught with many of its own cultural challenges today. Quite a delicious combination.

It is a slim book, just 13 chapters. But it is filled with Malcolm’s decisive, sharp, detailed prose and rich, fertile ideas that could easily have streamed out into longer tangents if she’d let them. A part of me wished that she had as some of them were very interesting. An engrossing read that will leave you wanting more when done. And I don’t say that often about a book.

As Chekhov divided his life between the time he was beaten and the time he was no longer beaten, so his stories break down into those that take place in the universe where “everything is permitted,” and those set in the world of ordinary human beings who cannot stop making each other miserable but do not step over the line into barbarism. He had begun to look into the abyss early in his writing career; among the contributions to the humor magazines, there are grim little tales that point directly to the mature works of despair. One of these is the seven-page story “Because of Little Apples” (1880), in which another sadist watches another beating. This time, a landowner catches a young engaged peasant couple eating apples in his orchard, and devises the amusing punishment of forcing first the girl to beat the boy and then the boy to beat the girl. When it’s the boy’s turn, his sadistic impulses are set off, and in his “ecstasy” he cannot stop beating the girl. Chekhov will reuse this Doestoevskian psychological insight in “Peasant Wives.”

If these three bibliomemoirs have whetted your appetite, you can also check out others listed in the earlier six-part series about bibliomemoirs.

Until next month then. As always, please do share your favorite books that have helped your writing practice — particularly if these books are not the traditional how-to ones.

[Read the entire series.]

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