An uneven second collection of essays on writing from the New York Times.
The 45 pieces collected here are neither as solid as those from the first go-round (2001) nor as entertaining as the ones in Marie Arana’s similar Washington Post anthology, The Writing Life (see above). In such short essays, all it takes is one false step, and interest evaporates. Stumbles include the typically crack Herbert Gold using ridiculous dialogue (“Sorry, but I’m a very busy dermatologist. I only have time to keep up with well-validated books”), A.M. Homes making the baffling statement that to have witnessed in real time the destruction of the World Trade Center was “irreconcilable,” and Anna Quindlen’s overly generous self-appraisal of her work as journalist and novelist (“good writing is good writing no matter where you find it”). Ann Patchett in one swoop neatly undercuts the decidedly sniffy sense that these writers have been anointed by the paper of record (even if some of the names leave you scratching your head) when she casually remarks, “This essay, for example, which I asked to write . . . ” Let it be said that the volume also contains some dandies: Arthur Miller on writing about anti-Semitism in Focus (“I knew what I knew, what I had seen and heard”), or William Kennedy tracking like a hard-bitten gumshoe his contention that “fiction demands the necessary falsity, the essential lie that the imagination knows is truer than what your rational self thinks is true.” What work best are not the pretentious expoundings on “craft,” but the glimpses into writers and the circumstances that shape them, as when Amy Tan excavates her family genealogy, or David Mamet comments on his encounters with the piano, “how much can one remove, and still have the composition be intelligible?”
More self-consciously literary than its predecessor, but still some valuable gleanings.