Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Way back in the mist-shrouded past (that is, 2014), we published ‘The Top Ten Books On Writing That’ll Make You A Better Writer.’ Well, to mark the five-year anniversary of that post, I’m here to offer five more books that I think will make even the most confident writer pause for thought.
This article, and indeed the last one, come as responses to the fact that while writing advice is everywhere, much of it just, well… isn’t very good. What you need, time-strapped reader, is a filter; someone to go through and pick out the good stuff. Well, here are a few examples of such good stuff.
Some of the books listed below are explicitly about creative writing, while others discuss tangential subjects. One’s about bullfighting. Trust me on that one.
1. How Fiction Works by James Wood
This book’s number one for a reason – it’s dazzling in its incisiveness. For those who don’t know, James Wood is one of the few remaining great literary critics. This distinctly twentieth-century profession has come under serious attack in the past few decades, and what was once a well-known and well-respected coterie of celebrity academics has now been whittled down to a few stubborn hangers-on.
Of these hangers-on, James Wood is arguably the most impressive. An avowed aesthete, Wood was a critic first for The Guardian, then The New Republic, and is now a Harvard professor and staff writer at The New Yorker. But impressive professional credentials don’t necessarily make for a good book; thankfully, How Fiction Works is a startlingly clear, concise, and sharp deconstruction of literary devices and movements.
It’s also remarkably concise – I learned more about close reading, literary sleight of hand, detail, character, style, and literary pathos from its 200 pages than I did over my bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in literature! If you’re looking to understand what it is that makes great writers (Wood discusses work by Henry James, Gustave Flaubert, Beatrix Potter, David Foster Wallace, Roberto Bolaño, Jane Austen, John le Carre, etc.) great on a textual level, Wood can tell you clearly, concisely, and with enviable sharpness. See full description and reviews on Amazon.
2. 12 Short Stories and Their Making by Paul Mandelbaum
The concept of 12 Short Stories and Their Making is remarkably simple and so obviously useful to writers that it’s bizarre we haven’t seen a hundred clones since its publication in 2005. Basically, it’s an anthology of twelve short stories by twelve different writers. The kicker is that each story is accompanied by an author interview where the collection’s editor, Paul Mandelbaum, interrogates the author in question about how exactly the story came to be. Obviously, this kind of insight is both rare and valuable, doubly so when you consider that the twelve writers include such luminaries as Ursula K. Le Guin, Tobias Wolff, and Jhumpa Lahiri.
Mandelbaum’s questions are sharp, text-specific, and cut right to the core of the story being examined. He has a real aptitude for getting writers to confess their secrets, and the writers themselves never skimp on providing thoughtful, thorough answers. I’ve plucked out a question almost at random to give you an idea of the kinds of thing Paul zooms in on:
You give us just a few brushstrokes of Christie physically – her glasses, her hair, her black clothes – and leave the rest to our imaginations. How do you know which are the right few brushstrokes for a given character? Do you have certain favorite areas?– Paul Mandelbaum, 12 Short Stories and Their Making
As you can see, this isn’t your standard, lazy “What made you want to be a writer?” interview fare; Paul’s clearly engaged closely with the stories included and has responded with questions that readers will find not only insightful, but of practical use. See full description and reviews on Amazon.
3. ‘Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown’ by Virginia Woolf
I talked a lot about ‘Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown’ in my recent-ish post on Virginia Woolf, but wow, championing this text never gets old. An essay rather than a full-length book (though you can buy standalone editions), ‘Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown’ began life as a stern response to the titular Mr. Bennett, a literary critic and writer who had, in 1923, criticized Woolf’s treatment of character in her 1922 novel Jacob’s Room, and was developed by Woolf at the urging of T.S. Eliot.
The essay is a carefully observed and thoughtful exploration of character, both in the real world and in fiction, and is as pioneering and revolutionary as you’d expect from the queen of modernism. Remarkably, Woolf manages to mix literary philosophy (she argues with Mr. Bennett’s conflation of reality – that is, realist fiction – with truth, which she saw as something more impressionistic and relative) with clear, practical advice from which writers can instantly benefit.
As a character study, a critical essay, and as practical writers’ advice, ‘Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown’ knocks it out of the park. If you want to write better characters, read it. See full description and reviews on Amazon.
4. Death in the Afternoon by Ernest Hemingway
Often cited as the father of modern style, Hemingway is probably one of the most mimicked writers out there. His sparse, masculine prose has gone on to influence just about every male writer in America as well as countless others at home and abroad. While he’s had a collection of writing advice posthumously published, it’s his 1932 book Death in the Afternoon that I think exposes his style and philosophy most cohesively to readers.
Ostensibly a spirited defense of bullfighting, Death in the Afternoon is really a contemplation on fear, courage, and how these things exist in writing. The book is home to Hemingway’s world-famous iceberg allegory, which is decidedly not about bulls or Spaniards:
If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.– Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon
While Hemingway’s advice is arguably beginning to show its age (mostly due to other writers endlessly aping his style), he’s still a font of knowledge, and every writer working today should know the core ideas of the man basically responsible for ‘Show, don’t tell.’ See full description and reviews on Amazon.
5. Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande
The reason I love Becoming a Writer is that, unlike some other more pedestrian workbooks that endlessly drill ‘Show, don’t tell’ or ‘stop using adverbs,’ Brande focuses instead on the condition of being a writer – psychology, personality, and all.
She opens the book by discussing the ‘dual personality’ writers must exhibit – how they must be down-to-earth and practical enough to sit down and do the work and, at the same time, be emotional, sensitive, and partisan so as to actually have things to write about. Unearthing and balancing these two sides is, of course, no easy thing, but Brande leads her readers through it with thoughtful, timeless wisdom and in-text exercises.
You won’t find any lessons on craft in Becoming a Writer but, for those who find themselves too paralyzed to even begin writing their epic, it’s the perfect book. See full description and reviews on Amazon.
What’s on your bookshelf?
It was difficult narrowing my list of potential books down to a measly five (runners-up included Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, and Critics, Monsters, Fanatics by Cynthia Ozick – all great reads if you need more material), but ultimately I’m happy with my selection.
Each book on this list will make you reflect on things you may not have even considered since becoming a writer. These could be aspects of craft that you’ve neglected (Woolf and Hemingway are particularly strong on this) or critical ideas, philosophical ideals, and practical processes that snuck right by you. Reflecting on your profession/hobby is never a bad idea, and few books will lead you more confidently than these. Enjoy!
What did I miss? Are there any books that have made you a better writer? Let me know in the comments, and for more recommendations, check out The Top Ten Books On Writing That’ll Make You A Better Writer and Five Experimental Novels That Will Inspire Any Writer.