Saturday, January 26, 2008

Opinionated Book Reviews

I thought I might review a few books that have to do with writing. Hope you don’t mind some strong opinions.

Ray Bradbury: Zen in the Art of Writing: RATING = C+: I was disappointed in this book. I’d heard the title mentioned years ago and built up an image of what a fine book it must be from Bradbury. Maybe I expected too much. The essays are almost all ones I’ve seen before, and most are quite slight in content. Bradbury talks much about his technique of writing down a series of evocative nouns, (the fog horn, the attic, etc.) and then using them to trigger a story. I've tried this and it works. But there wasn't much else of help. The book is a "cheerleading" work, meant to keep up the writer's spirits while they languish in the slush pile. There was considerable autobiographical material on Bradbury, which I liked. The title essay is the strongest.

James Sallis: Difficult Lives: Jim Thompson - David Goodis – Chester Himes: RATING = A: I've mentioned Sallis's work before, primarily for his mysteries. Difficult Lives¬ is a non-fiction biography of three 1950's detective novelists, including Himes, who was black. The book was issued by a small company called "Gryphon Press," but deserves a wider audience. I thought it was excellent, poetical in places, and with strong insights into the characters of these writers. The portraits of the first two, Thompson and Goodis, are also filled with their connections to alcohol, which many have noted seems to be a close friend/enemy of some writers. I asked Jim about Himes and alcohol, and he said there probably was a connection but that he didn't have enough information to be sure. Recommended, if you can find a copy.

Tim Underwood & Chuck Miller, Editors: Feast of Fear; Conversations with Stephen King: RATING = C+: This book spans King's career and the interviews are generally well done and ask the right questions. The downside is that all of it has been said before. I didn't learn anything new about King, but I'd say it would be hard to do so considering his saturation point has long since been reached. This is mainly only for hardcore King freaks.

Douglas Winter: Stephen King: The Art of Darkness: RATING = B: This is an old book (1986) but if you like King then you’ll probably enjoy it. It was easy reading and gave a good amount of biographical background. I read it because of my interest in writers in general, but didn't find terribly much of use here. It pretty much is what it seems, an ode to Stephen King.

Jack Woodford: Trial and Error: RATING = D-: If you’ve ever thought about writing, then I urge you desperately to never touch this book, and if you are ever given a copy throw it immediately in the garbage. This is the worst type of cynical tripe, utterly useless to anyone who wants to write serious material. If you follow its directions you might find yourself selling a few things here and there. If you have some talent you might even sell quite a bit. But none of it will be memorable, and unless you are totally without soul you will despise yourself for it. Woodford insults readers, writers, editors, and just about everyone else you can name. I have no doubt he is showing the writing world as he saw it, and a bleak and terrible hell it is. He never lies and tells anyone that he’s going to show them how to write, only how to make money from writing. (That’s why he gets a D- instead of an F.) He tells you to throw out your vocabulary. Even a person with a high school education knows 1000s of more words than he needs. He says never to rewrite. He says to steal time from your other job to "knock off" a short story or two. He is the archetype of a hack. In the end I feel sorry for the fellow. His real name was Josiah Pitts Woolfolk, and he died with $56 dollars to his name. He had been in Federal prison for a time for mail fraud, and in the end was typing but not selling from a seedy hotel in Richmond, Virginia. He died at 77, with his one apparently memorable piece of writing being this book. How depressing.

24 comments:

Miladysa said...

What a pity about "Josiah Pitts Woolfolk" with a life story like his you would have thought that he had a bestseller in him!

I like the way you have written these book reviews.

When I think about writing it takes all the joy from it so I am going to do less thinking and more writing ;)

Julie said...

Broadly allowing for writers having differing aims and needs, which book(s) would you choose as good writing guides?

Animated review of JPW definitely cut to the quick...

(ps re last post - I find brief cat napping can alter thought pace).

Shauna Roberts said...

I too was disappointed with the Bradbury book. When I buy a writing book, I want to learn how to write better or write faster. If I need to be cheered up about something that's not selling, I'll eat a chocolate bar.

Haven't read the one about the detective novelists, but it sounds intriguing.

Thanks for reviewing these books and for saving us from Trial and Error.

cs harris said...

Interesting review of Bradbury. The title of his book had alway intrigued me. Doesn't sound as if it delivers.

Michelle's Spell said...

Thanks for the suggestions. I'll definitely check out the book on Himes and Jim Thompson. Love both of them! And use Jim Thompson in teaching all the time -- there's only one plot -- things are not what they seem. Brilliant way of looking at writing. As for alcohol, he was reputed to drink vats of it, the hardcore everclear type stuff that really gets you.

RRN said...

Here is a self consumed comment not at all related to your post...

I just noticed you included my blog on your page in the list of blogs you have posted....I was quite suprized and happy to see that.
Thank you very much. I consider this to be a high honor.

Erik Donald France said...

Ooh, this is good. Difficult Lives sounds particularly good. I love your take on Jack Woodford --very funny.

Josie said...

Charles, I'm not a writer, so I don't know... but wouldn't the best way to learn to be a good writer be to read the good works of the good writers? My two favorites are Steinbeck and Maugham. I know they're from a long ago age, but their stories hold up today, and they both understood human nature. Stories are, after all, about human nature and the human condition.

Stephen King was a fairly good story teller and not a bad writer, but his books are all about the supernatural, and really very little about the human condition.

Lana Gramlich said...

Writing With Fire; A+

Steve Malley said...

A lot of those old pulp fellahs were self-loathing and contemptuous of their own best work, talents and natures.

JDM came through all right, but bitter lives and tragic ends were sadly the rule more than the exception...

Charles Gramlich said...

Miladysa, sometimes these days the anticipation of having time to write is the greatest pleasure.

Julie, I should post on some of the better books I've read. One great one was "telling lies for fun and profit" by Lawrence Bloch. I find that naps are good for many things.

Shauna, James Sallis is incapable of writing badly. Your comments about the cheerleading books are right on as far as I'm concerned.

Candice, I probably would have found Bradbury's book more worthwhile when I first started writing.

Michelle, I only discovered Thompson in the last ten years and really enjoy his work. Everclear is some bad shit.

RRN, no problem. Was happy to do it.

Erik, like I said to Shauna, Jim Sallis is just an incredible writer, whether it's fiction or nonfiction.

Josie, I think for the basics of writing it is definitely most important to read the great writers, but I do think books by writers on writing can be useful at helping you pick up specific techniques. Steinbeck was certainly a good story teller.

Lana, let me add, Lana Gramlich A++++++++++++

Steve Malley, I know you're right about that. I wonder why. Sometimes a writer does find that the "fans" prefer work that the writer himself sees as of lesser quality. But the writer is so close to the work that it's hard to judge.

Miladysa said...

I LOVE the anticipation of writing - the problem for me is thinking too much about what I have actually written. Does that make more sense?

Donnetta Lee said...

Charles: Thanks for the work you put into these reviews. Interesting to read your "takes" on these. Hope you and Ms. Lana are doing well.
Donnetta

ivan said...

Though Bradbury is a masterful writer, there are a couple of things I disagree with him on.

1) Says to avoid journalism.
Hm. How else was a hack like me to get published?

2) Write every day, with no real plan; success is sure to come.
Hm.
I Related this advice to the late Susan Sonntag in Copenhagen.
She walked away from the table with a parting shot,
"No wonder you have problems: You don't plot."

Bernita said...

Bradbury's technique with evocative nouns is interesting - sort of bullet point plotting.
A good way to haul out something that's simmering in the subconscious.

Charles Gramlich said...

Miladysa, sounds to me like your internal editor is a bit too strong during the "writing" phase of things. A piece has to be written, AND edited. Some folks do this at the same time. Others do the writing first and then the editing. Most of us probably mix the two at times. When I'm having any kind of blockage I try to relax the editor side of the equation and just get the writing done, figuring I'll make it pretty later. Once I start editing, I sometimes have a hard time getting my editor to shut up, but I realize that there is a diminishing rate of return on continued editing. There comes a time when you have to say, this is as good as it's gonna get at my current level of skill, and you send it off. Tell your editor side that she'll have another chance to criticize on your "next" piece, but this one is done.

Donnetta, Lana and I are doing quite well. Thankee.

Ivan, I think Bradbury is great too, but I think one thing he might not realize is that competition to break in as a writer is much heavier now than when he was starting out. I think it takes more of a business sense these days to make it than in Bradbury's early days.

Bernita, yes, I find his technique fun as well.

SQT said...

1) Says to avoid journalism.
Hm. How else was a hack like me to get published?


I think I understand where this comes from. I worked as a journalist and I'm having a heck of a time transitioning to more creative writing. Journalism is kind of writing in a "just the facts ma'am" style and a lot of evocative language gets lost. I admire people who can write descriptively and really struggle with it.

david mcmahon said...

G'day from Oz,

First visit here, from Julie's great blog. Funny, you and I use the same template!

As an author, I'm used to reviewers having strong opinions. In fact, I prefer it that way.

Good on ya!!

Rachel said...

Thought about getting Zen book by Bradbury, glad I read the review. And that other guy, the one at the end, not gettin' his book anytime soon! Have you heard of the Tao of Writing? It's by Wahlstrom. It's okay. If you find it used somewhere, take a peek. I found some useful things in it, but it didn't wow me like other writing books have.

Thanks for the reviews!

Travis Erwin said...

Way to hold back Charles. Thanks for the take on these I haven't read any of them.

Shauna Roberts said...

Off topic, but I saw on Travis's blog that you share my opinion that Johnny Cash's cover of "Hurt" was his best song. That was such an incredibly powerful performance. As I said on Travis's blog, hearing it for the first time was like a religious revelation. We kept the TV on CMT a lot after that video was released in hopes of catching it again and again.

Miladysa said...

Charles - From the bottom of my heart I thank you for that piece of excellent advice.

I'm going to gag her *grin*

Charles Gramlich said...

SQT, I know that when I spend a lot of time writing nonfiction it takes me a while to get back into the fiction swing.

David McMahon, thanks for dropping by. Yes, Julie always has something cool to offer.

Rachel, I haven't read "Tao" yet but I've heard of it and will surely give it a try at some point. My next "writing" related book is the workbook for "Writing the breakout novel."

Travis Erwin, well the two about Stephen King are certainly genre specific really.

Shauna, yes. The first song in a long time that brought tears to my eyes. I also found the video on Youtube here

writtenwyrdd said...

thanks for the run down on these books, Charles. I doubt I'd have picked these guys up. I do recommend the books Orson Scott Card wrote on writing because they are highly accessible. Of my thirty or so books on how to write, not too many of them stand out, unfortunately. I figure if I get a few good tips or ideas from one of them, they were worth the cost.

Re Trial & Error: Ouch. Really didn't care for that one, did you? I don't think I would either, based on your description. Nothing wrong with being a hack, if by that one means writing to sell, but there is something wrong with being a proponent of writing to sell bad writing. Sounds cynical to the max.