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November 12, 2007


Matt Brigg

"... they should hang above yours ..."

Should they really?

I have nothing hanging above my desk. I'm too busy writing when I'm at my desk to read helpful admonitions one way or the other about whether the endeavor is worth anything. It's the kind of thing where if you consider the sanity of what you are doing or its value in any way, you'd stop, and do something useful like mop the floor, pick up stray Big Gulp cups from freeway overpasses, work at a soup kitchen or something.

I like rules in fiction because they are so clearly silly, and sometimes they are useful. But, admonitions that begin with "don't waste my time," or "don't waste your time," are mean spirited. The imply that the effort of some writers are worth the effort, and the effort of other writers not worth the effort. Who makes these decisions? Should writers vet their efforts with a board of critics before they begin writing? Rules at least embrace the pomposity of making a broad proclamation. But, these helpful homilies tend to be designed to put struggling writers in their place and not so struggling writers in their place.

(A peeve of mine is the homily "show don't tell." If I was interested in "showing" I would paint pictures or make movies...)

I had a class with a writer named Charles Johnson. I found much in his class really useful. But, he also passed out a poorly xeroxed copy of a list of considerations written by Joyce Carol Oats that essentially told us student writers (I was a college freshman) that unless our works-in-progress would compete with the thousands of novels that were published every year -- well don't bother. This was Joyce Carol Oats who publishes more books in a year than most people read in a year.

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  • The Elegant Variation is "Fowler’s (1926, 1965) term for the inept writer’s overstrained efforts at freshness or vividness of expression. Prose guilty of elegant variation calls attention to itself and doesn’t permit its ideas to seem naturally clear. It typically seeks fancy new words for familiar things, and it scrambles for synonyms in order to avoid at all costs repeating a word, even though repetition might be the natural, normal thing to do: The audience had a certain bovine placidity, instead of The audience was as placid as cows. Elegant variation is often the rock, and a stereotype, a cliché, or a tired metaphor the hard place between which inexperienced or foolish writers come to grief. The familiar middle ground in treating these homely topics is almost always the safest. In untrained or unrestrained hands, a thesaurus can be dangerous."


  • The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald


    Penelope Fitzgerald's second novel is the tale of Florence Green, a widow who seeks, in the late 1950s, to bring a bookstore to an isolated British town, encountering all manner of obstacles, including incompetent builders, vindictive gentry, small minded bankers, an irritable poltergeist, but, above all, a town that might not, in fact, want a bookshop. Fitzgerald's prose is spare but evocative – there's no wasted effort and her work reminds one of Hemingway's dictum that every word should fight for its right to be on the page. Florence is an engaging creation, stubbornly committed to her plan even as uncertainty regarding the wisdom of the enterprise gnaws at her. But The Bookshop concerns itself, finally, with the astonishing vindictiveness of which provincials are capable, and, as so much English fiction must, it grapples with the inevitabilities of class. It's a dense marvel at 123 pages, a book you won't want to – or be able to – rush through.
  • The Rider by Tim Krabbe


    Tim Krabbé's superb 1978 memoir-cum-novel is the single best book we've read about cycling, a book that will come closer to bringing you inside a grueling road race than anything else out there. A kilometer-by-kilometer look at just what is required to endure some of the most grueling terrain in the world, Krabbé explains the tactics, the choices and – above all – the grinding, endless, excruciating pain that every cyclist faces and makes it heart-pounding rather than expository or tedious. No writer has better captured both the agony and the determination to ride through the agony. He's an elegant stylist (ably served by Sam Garrett's fine translation) and The Rider manages to be that rarest hybrid – an authentic, accurate book about cycling that's a pleasure to read. "Non-racers," he writes. "The emptiness of those lives shocks me."