Kirkus Reviews QR Code


edited by Frederick Busch

Pub Date: June 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-393-04735-0
Publisher: Norton

Prominent writers of fiction dispense copious, often conflicting, and largely entertaining advice to beginners and sundry others who feel called to publish short stories and novels. Most of the famous authors collected here by Busch, himself a prolific novelist (Girls, 1997; Long Way from Home, 1993, etc.) are American, most are contemporary, and all are English-speaking (though some give weight to their counsel by refering to Chekhov, Kafka, and Tolstoy). Only 3 of these 36 pieces have never been published before. Still, the collection makes good and illuminating reading for anyone attracted to fiction, not just to prospective writers. In an exceptionally fine letter of rejection, writer/editor Pam Durban explains and demonstrates the “clarifying particularity” that marks a successful story. In the very next letter, shrewdly positioned by Busch, Shelby Foote harangues Walker Percy to the effect that he should never, ever let an editor tell him how to write. Some interesting common themes emerge. One is resentment: “People want you to think what you do is not magical,” warns Ann Beattie. Another is noble suffering for art. An underlying assumption of many of these letters seems to be that the demoralized aspirant is slaving away in penurious, undeserved anonymity. The writer longs for recognition and security. Some of the famous authors accept the topos at face value and offer comfort; tough-minded Janette Turner Hospital does not: “I wonder if there’s any such thing as a secure niche in the literary world? Perhaps there is; but if so, it would be a deadly thing to achieve in one’s lifetime. Smugness and self-satisfaction are inimical to art.” One theme that fails to emerge is what effect the university sinecures of so many contemporary American writers may have on our fiction. Like Busch (who teaches at Colgate University), most of the contributors are also academic professors. To paraphrase Samuel Beckett: Good writing is not about something; it is something itself. Busch’s collection embodies good writing.