Thursday, February 22, 2018

Book Review / The Faith Of A Writer: Life, Craft, Art by Joyce Carol Oates

Ms Oates' collection of thirteen essays on writing commingles heart and head to the extent these two often warring factions make an accord. Though a slim volume, it achieves much because of this harmony. If sentences are to be polished with costly adjectives, then let those embellishments be words like tessellated, hieratic, and  hypnagogic. The preciousness of her repetitive command write your heart out (in To a Young Writer) is easy to accept at face value because it stands out, like a Tiffany setting, supported by the shining evidence of her skills.

In Notes on Failure, one of the longer essays, she tackles the topic from several angles. One is that disappointment and frustration can beget favourable results. James Joyce's lack of success encouraged him to keep going since his work was so unpopular, he had nothing to lose. An odd safe haven was created from criticism. He profited from as his brother Stanislaus remarked, that inflexibility firmly rooted in failure. 

The obscure wellsprings which flush out creativity are discussed in Inspiration! A sight there, a sound here, a smell over there, an event over here can compel a writer to drink from the well. But what makes them go back again and again to quench that thirst, to get to know their obsession better, to bring the private into the public sphere? To answer her question, Why the need, rising in some very nearly to the level of compulsion, to verify experience by way of language?—to scrupulously record and preserve the very passing of Time? she quotes Vladimir Nabokov: All poetry is positional, to try to express one's position in regard to the universe embraced by consciousness is an immemorial urge. The arms of consciousness reach out and grope, and the longer they are the better. Tentacles, not wings, are Apollo's natural members.

A two-part essay, the longest in the anthology, is titled, Reading as a Writer. Reading benefits writers in various ways. One such means is analysis. How does that author pull off what she does? What rhythm of sentence length? What vocabulary? What is the meaning of the finished piece? She elaborates on the latter by focusing on Anton Chekhov's short story, The Lady with the Dog. Its theme is stated right in the story itself: . . . Every man had his real, most interesting life under the cover of secrecy and under the cover of night. She concludes:

The story's theme is like a bobbin upon which the thread of the narrative, or plot, is skillfully wound. Without the bobbin, the thread would fly loose. Lacking this thematic center of gravity, the story of "fated" lovers would be merely sentimental and unoriginal.
In general, fiction of a high quality possesses depth because it involves absorbing narratives and meritorious characters and is at the same time a kind of commentary upon itself. In Chekhov, among other writers of distinction, "fiction" is counterpointed by "commentary" in a delicate equilibrium. The commentary can be extricated from the fiction, as Ray Carver chose a succinct epiphany from Chekhov to affix to his wall: . . . and suddenly everything became clear to him. But the fiction can't be extricated from the commentary, except at the risk of reducing it to a mere concatenation of events lacking a spiritual core.

The Faith of a Writer is a gracious, pragmatic, and knowledgeable companion to writers. It will be kept on a shelf near my desk. I recommend it highly.

À la prochaine!

OTHER BOOK REVIEWS

Book Review / Florike Egmond's An Eye For Detail: Images of Plants and Animals in Art and Science, 1500-1630

Book Review / Hot Bread Kitchen Cookbook: Artisanal

Baking From Around The World by Jessamyn Waldman

Rodriguez with Julia Turshen


Book Review/The Confidence Game: The Psychology Of The Con And Why We Fall For It Every Time By Maria Konnikova


RELATED LINKS

The Faith of a Writer at Amazon

Joyce Carol Oates' Twitter account