In this account of what he says will be his last semester teaching, prolific novelist West (The Dry Danube, 2000, etc.) cajoles and exhorts 15 graduate writing students, with equal parts wisdom and pretension.
Although he claims to have barked at a former student, “I would rather lie naked in a plowed field, under an incontinent horse, than read this piece again,” West assumes in this semester the guise of an avuncular, if occasionally cranky, mentor. Outside the classroom walls, in the world of publishing, danger lurks, he warns: editors with MBAs but scant appreciation for literature, an inattentive mass readership, and other writers tempted to play it safe with style. Yet they must stay true to their gifts: “You were not brought into this spotty world to pass muster; you were created so as to stand out in your creative difference.” He constantly invokes exemplars, notably Joyce, Beckett, and Proust (even urging that students sleep with a page of this “Lavender Everest” under their pillows). Before and during critiques, he dispenses pithy advice on style, recommending experimentation in every sentence and truncated exchanges between characters, “so that the reader feels a certain amount of unexpended attentive energy that must be transferred to the next dialogue.” Fascinated by voice in writing, West unfortunately gives the impression of being most enthralled by his own. His classroom monologues, a Niagara of recondite vocabulary like “mystagogical” and “adumbration” and “noetic shrug,” seem more designed to awe than to communicate, and sometimes succeed in doing neither. In addition, self-congratulation seeps freely into his private reflections, such as “I am glorifying a gaggle of talents into a fairy circle of geniuses” or “I have bled a little potassium permanganate into the clear water of their souls.”
A sometimes inspiriting, often infuriating glimpse into how a veteran novelist molds a younger generation of fiction writers.