Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Making a Literary Life by Carolyn See

Because I read Stephen Koch's The Modern Library Writer's Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction first, my initial instinct when writing this review for Making a Literary Life by Carolyn See was to compare and contrast the two. Before I do that, let me say that See's submission to the many guides on the subject of writing is a good book, with clear, practical advice and any beginning writer would do well to read it.

That said, when I thought to compare these two guides against each other, I was suddenly disappointed with Carolyn See's style. I realized that her text represents the stereotypical woman's voice - less dense, less authoritative than that of Stephen Koch. However, Carolyn See's style has merits that Stephen Koch does not. She is witty, warm and conversational. She is a woman you would like, a woman you would take advice from, because she comes across as a best friend. Sadly, as with many women's work, this voice could prevent writers from giving her due attention. "Serious" writers are looking for a more self-assured professor type who displays a breadth and depth of knowledge of literature and writing, which Koch certainly does. Even the titles - "Literary Life" and "Writer's Workshop" are revealing in their opposing styles, their contrast according to gender.

To be clear, both writers, both published - thus, in my eyes, successful - have sound advice to offer any person learning their craft. I don't know if I think women should write more like men. I don't know if Carolyn See should have, if possible, written more like Stephen Koch. Part of me says no. But I can easily see how Koch's book may be taken more seriously because of both his style and his content. My leaning is to say that Koch's instructions were more and better than See's. My preference for Koch and my guilt for that preference, my confusion about my reasons for that preference and the merits of those reasons makes this a difficult review to write, wherein I talk more about the writing styles of the book(s) than I do about the content about the one book I am reviewing, which...

I guess is appropriate for a review of a book about...writing.

I'm writing about the writing in a book(s) about writing.

One thing that Carolyn See does that Koch neglects to do is go beyond the writing process in and of it self as she delves into the process of publishing - in a good portion of the latter part of the book, written in what is obviously the writer's personal hindsight, we are given warnings, instructions and encouragement for publishing our work(s). Though I felt a section on what to do during the publishing process was a bit presumptious (my novel could be published? yeah, right) I enjoyed reading the advice and having my eyes opened as to the dark world that is the Publishing Business, even more so than my pessimism had already suspected/expected, yet I was also provided with the notion that perhaps publication was/is possible. - 4 stars


hamilcar barca said...

to me, what would be interesting is a book about all the "wrong turns" and mistakes that authors-to-be made in their quest to get their stories published. i gather Carolyn See's book at least touches on that.

then maybe another section of the book on various innovative things you can do to promote yourself and somehow get publishers and readers to notice you. i know J.A. Konrath did a lot of off-the-wall stuff to accomplish that.

L said...

I'm writing about the writing in a book(s) about writing.

Excellent line.

I agree with your assessment of the different gender writing styles. Totally true, but still, I want to check this one out. Good review.

Amber said...

yes, hamilcar! we do need a "don't do this" book. will you write it, please?

thanks, Lula! I hope you'll take a look at it.

hamilcar barca said...

heh, Amber. i'm the throwback at 5-Squared. the only writing i've done as an adult is in French or Chinese, and none of it is publishable.

but just about everyone else here is serious about writing. maybe the group could collaboratively write a "Mistakes We've Made" and Ideas We Thought Of To Get Noticed" book.

Unknown said...

Well, I could certainly contribute a good deal to 'Mistakes We've Made'