Thursday, April 07, 2011

Five books to help aspiring creative writers

Andrew Cowan is a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing and Convenor of the MA in Creative Writing (Prose Fiction) at the University of East Anglia. He is a graduate of the MA and was for some years the Royal Literary Fund Writing Fellow at UEA. He is the author of four novels: Pig, which won several literary prizes including the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award and was longlisted for the Booker Prize, Common Ground, Crustaceans, and most recently What I Know, which received an Arts Council Writer’s Award. His Creative Writing guidebook is The Art of Writing Fiction.

To Daisy Banks of FiveBooks, Cowan recommended a handful of books to help aspiring writers, including:
On Becoming a Novelist
by John Gardner

Your next book, John Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist, is described as comfort food for the aspiring novelist.

This is another one of the classics. He was quite a successful novelist in the States, but possibly an even more successful teacher of creative writing. The short story writer and poet Raymond Carver, for instance, was one of his students. And he died young in a motorcycle accident when he was 49. There are two classic works by him. One is this book, On Becoming a Novelist, and the other is The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers. They were both put together from his teaching notes after he died.

On Becoming a Novelist is the more succinct and, I think, is the better of the two. He talks about automatic writing and the idea, just like Dorothea Brande, of the artist being comprised of two people. But his key idea is the notion of the vivid and continuous dream. He suggests that when we read a novel we submit to the logic of that novel in the same way as we might submit to the logic of a dream – we sink into it, and clearly the events that occur could not exist outside the imagination.

What makes student writing in particular go wrong is when it draws attention to itself, either through bad writing or over-elaborate writing. He suggests that these faults in the aspirant writer alert the reader to the fact that they are reading a fiction and it is a bit like giving someone who is dreaming a nudge. It jolts them out of the dream. So he proposes that the student writer should try to create a dream state in the reader that is vivid and appeals to all the senses and is continuous. What you mustn’t do is alert the reader to the fact that they are reading a fiction.

It is a very good piece of advice for writers starting out but it is ultimately very limiting. It rules out all the great works of modernism and post-modernism, anything which is linguistically experimental. It rules out anything which draws attention to the words as words on a page. It’s a piece of advice which really applies to the writing of realist fiction, but is a very good place from which to begin.

And then people can move on.

Read about another book Cowan recommends.

--Marshal Zeringue