Don’t

by Jenny Diski

ISBN: 1862072507

This is a collection of essays, most of which were written for the London Review of Books, and so masquerade as meandering book reviews. Diski sets up the reader to believe in meandering with her preface, saying that one “of the great pleasures for me of writing is starting out in the wrong direction and discovering how all points can eventually lead to home.”

I have read one of her novels (Like Mother) and I’ve looked for others from time to time, but as she is British, she is much better known in England than she is here and I haven’t had much luck finding them. Most of the books she uses for talking points in this collection I have not read. Many I still have no interest in reading; not because she trashed them, but because the pleasure in this book was in listening to her think, not in getting excited about new things to read.

Diski has some great lines and good points. Of Oliver Sacks, she says he “acts is the non-fictional conscience of imaginitive art.” She dismisses the idea of diagnosing dead artistic geniuses, setting aside the issue of whether or not Blake would have written the same way on lithium, and instead says “I would sooner know in what way we think we benefit from pathologising the extraordinary.” “The Illusory Game” is not based around a book, but in the idea of fame; she points out that the glare from the cameras “isn’t love, its wattage.” The only problem was the times I felt there were too many pages between moments like this.

Diski comes across as smart and more skeptical than cynical. For all that she reveals (a breakup, depression) she does maintain a distance from the reader — it may be all about her, but not really. The book is organized well, divided into five more or less thematic sections. Maybe it would have been better to dip in and out of this book, rather than read it straight through. I’m at a loss as to say exactly why that is, other than to say this is probably best read as an “in-between” book, the kind of thing that is a pleasant enough way to spend time but nothing to get revved up about. Look for it in the library and flip through it with a cup of tea.

Fires

by Raymond Carver

ISBN: 39472299X

This book is a re-read for me.

Fires is a collection, and a bit of an odd one: it starts off with two essays, then has quiet a bit of poetry, then some stories, an interview from Paris Review, and an afterword Carver wrote because he thought a foreward seemed “presumptuous” of someone under fifty. (This was written before his diagnosis of and death from lung cancer in 1988, at age fifty.)

I haven’t read Carver in quite some time, but I always liked him because I thought of him as a “no bullshit” kind of writer. On re-reading, he still is a no bullshit writer; I was right about that part. In the first essay, he talks about why he became a writer of poems and short stories, rather than novels. He said this: “Get in, get out. Don’t linger. Go on.”

I love Carver. This time around, I especially liked the essays, and the sense, building as I read through the whole book, that I was reading the work of someone who really wanted to be writing what he was writing, who sweated for the words on the page.

Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction

by Charles Baxter
ISBN: 1555972705

This is the sort of book that makes you want to go out and do one of two things after you read it: if you are at all inclined, it will make you think about your own fiction writing and pick up a pen or go sit at the keyboard, and if you are a serious reader it will make you want to go read a really good short story. By ‘serious reader’ I mean simply somebody who wants to think and feel their way through a piece of fiction, to consider how it was crafted, instead of just seeing how fast they can zip though it and say ‘yeah, I’ve read that.’

Baxter is a serious reader, and a writer. (I’ve read The Feast of Love, but none of his other fiction or his poetry — yet.) The essays in this volume were originally conceived as lectures and given at the MFA program for writers at Warren Wilson College. What I like about them is that they are not merely academic exercises or more pointless theory. Instead, they show a writer thinking his way through fiction in a deliberate enough way that you can follow his path.

There are nine essays: Dysfunctional Narratives, or: \”Mistakes Were Made\”, On Defamiliarization, Againt Epiphanies, Counterpointed Characterization, Rhyming Action, Maps and Legends of Hell: Notes on Melodrama, The Donald Barthelme Blues, and Stillness. In each of these he works towards his central point, uses great examples, and says what he means. I love things like this:

There is such a thing as the poetry of the mistake, and when you say, “Mistakes were made,” you deprive an action of its poetry, and you sound like a weasel. When you say, “I fucked up,” the action retains its meaning, its sordid origin, its obscenity, and its poetry.

He spends a fair amount of space in these essays talking about short stories, a form which doesn’t get the respect or attention it deserves. I found myself nodding my head in agreement many times as I read this book; Baxter has a knack for putting his finger on the things that bug me about how fiction is talked about, taught, or lauded, all without sounding like a crank.

If you are curious about what a writer thinks about writing, or want to see an intelligent take on the problems and challenges of fiction, you should read this book. It is high on thoughtful analysis and low on bullshit, and that isn’t something I come across very often on this topic.