National Book Award–winning novelist Casey (English/Univ. of Virginia; Compass Rose, 2010, etc.) waxes thoughtful about his craft in a collection of essays, some nearly 20 years old.
The title, which sounds a little how-to-do-it, is somewhat misleading. Yes, the art of fiction is the author’s subject, but these are more ruminative, speculative pieces than they are lessons in how to write stories and novels. Readers looking for bullet-point lists of specific recommendations should look elsewhere. Also: Since the essays were written over a period of decades, some of the examples and anecdotes appear more than once. Casey frequently writes about his time at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (with kind words for such teachers as Kurt Vonnegut Jr.), and he alludes in several ways to Nabokov’s Speak, Memory. He repeats a story about a painting chimpanzee, and several times, he discusses the significance for beginning writers of the work of acting theorist Stanislavski. On the whole, however, Casey’s topics are compelling and useful. He examines quintessentially American writers—Twain, Whitman, Hemingway and Salinger—and he explores the concept of human justice in fiction (are you treating your characters equally?). Casey also reflects on humor—and consults some pretty good authorities (Oscar Wilde)—leaps back in history for consideration of Aristotle’s Poetics, and traces the history of sex and violence in fiction (D.H. Lawrence makes an expected appearance here). The author notes the various uses of the first person—from “My Last Duchess” to Edgar Allan Poe to “the swelling I” of Whitman—and he asserts that the “point” of it all is “to crack the skull of a character…so that the individual psyche of the character is released”—an apt and unforgettable image. The author also includes essays on vocabulary, translation and childhood reading—with a shout out to Catcher in the Rye—and ends with an affectionate tribute to his mentor, Peter Taylor.
Not a handbook for students but a guidebook for thinking about fiction.