From time to time I’ll recommend—not review, mind you, but recommend, and yes, there is a difference—books that I think fantasy (and science fiction and horror and all other) authors should have on their shelves. Some may be new and still in print, some may be difficult to find, but all will be, at least in my humble opinion, essential texts for any author, so worth looking for.
I have no idea how I ran across The World Split Open: Great Authors on How and Why We Write. I filter book recommendations from the world around me on an almost continual basis, and I hope you do as well. If I read something online that mentions a book and that book sounds the least bit interesting, onto my huge and always-growing Amazon list it goes. In fact, as I write this, I’m working my way through The Ring of Brightest Angels Around Heaven by Rick Moody. Why? Because a character on the TV series Legion was reading it and if it’s interesting to the creators of that brilliant series, it’s interesting to me (and I’m loving it so far, by the way.) Every time I step into a bookstore I pop that list up on my phone and often buy books, not from Amazon, but from some brick and mortar store… and sometimes, yeah, I just order from Amazon. But anyway, at some point, this book was mentioned, referenced, and/or recommended and it made it onto my now rather more active to-read list.
The World Split Open is a collection of essays that were actually lectures given by some significant authors at Literary Arts events in Portland, Oregon. Each of the ten authors included in the collection discuss some aspect of the writing life, or more specifically, their writing lives. What I found most fascinating about it is the wide range of experiences found there, the terrific variety of voices.
What voices? Here’s the table of contents:
305 Marguerite Cartwright Avenue by Chimamanda Adichie
Spotty-Handed Villainesses: Problems of Female Bad Behavior in the Creation of Literature by Margaret Atwood
No, But I Saw the Movie by Russell Banks
Childhood of a Writer by E.L. Doctorow
Finding the Known World by Edward P. Jones
“Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?” by Ursula K. Le Guin
On “Beauty” by Marilynne Robinson
Fiction to Make Sense of Life by Wallace Stegner
Morality and Truth in Literature by Robert Stone
What Is Art For? by Jeanette Winterson
Quite a list of significant heavy-hitters there, including a few authors who have written fantasy and/or science fiction.
You need to read this book for yourself, but here are some random thoughts from me:
First off, I absolutely adore the whole first paragraph of Chimamanda Adichie’s beautiful and heartfelt essay, too long to copy here, but her consideration of the power of books just got to me. I’m embarrassed to say I hadn’t heard of Ms. Adichie going into this book, but after reading her essay here I went out and bought one of her books and will get to it soon. I’ll also be drawing out some of the text of this essay as an example of the importance of culture for my ongoing online Worldbuilding course.
Margaret Atwood is her usual forthcoming, direct, and uncompromising self in “Spotty-Handed Villainesses” and writes quite convincingly on the intersection between genre and literary fiction. I found myself, not surprisingly for anyone who follows this blog, in complete agreement when she wrote here: “any story you tell must have a conflict of some sort, and it must have suspense.” Indeed!
One thing I learned from this book is that I need to start reading E.L. Doctorow. I pulled a bunch of stuff out of his essay, including another clip to bring into my revised Worldbuilding course, related to some of what we talked about here in regards to the Lester Dent essay “Wave Those Tags”:
Naming is profoundly important, every name carrying an injunction and so, if coordinate enough with other circumstances of life, a fate.
And I underlined this from Doctorow in regards to some of our discussions here about an author’s intentions vs. a reader’s interpretation: “an author’s intentions are hardly reliable measures of his accomplishments.”
I was also charmed to hear that Doctorow, like me, used media playing in the background while he wrote as inspiration, which I’ve also written about here.
And his challenge to authors to push ourselves bears repeating:
I believe nothing of any beauty or truth comes of a piece of writing without the author’s thinking he has sinned against something—propriety, custom, faith, privacy, tradition, political orthodoxy, historical fact, literary convention, or indeed, all the prevailing community standards together. And that work will not be realized without the liberation that comes to the writer from his feeling of having transgressed, broken the rules, played a forbidden game—without his understanding or even fearing his work as a possibly unforgiving transgression.
Food for thought.
I will write a whole post about research largely based on things that Edward P. Jones has to say in his essay “Finding the Known World,” so keep your eyes open for that. I can say it’s given my own years-percolating historical novel a new lease on life.
Likewise, Jones’s advice to focus on character, not detail, as he discusses a lack of historical detail regarding the construction of a log cabin in his novel The Known World (now on my to-read list as well!), ending with, “my job—as this writer, as this creator of Elias—is to present the man in the very best way that I can and that the intelligent reader can build his or her own cabin.”
I adore Ursula K. Le Guin’s brief but perfect definition of fiction: “Imagination working on experience.”
Thank you, ma’am.
I also tweeted this quote from her, which to my mind puts a final nail in the coffin of the snobby anti-genre literary elite: “To say that realistic fiction is by definition superior to imaginative fiction is to imply that imitation is superior to invention.”
Preach it, Sister!
In the margins of Wallace Stegner’s essay “Fiction to Make Sense of Life” I wrote: “great quote, just in general.” Here goes:
“The life we all live is to many degrees and in many ways amateurish and accidental. It begins by accident and proceeds by trial and error toward dubious ends. That’s the law of nature.”
Words to live by.
And I’ll end with this, from Robert Stone:
Storytelling is not a luxury to humanity; it’s almost as necessary as bread. We cannot imagine ourselves without it, because the self is story. The perception each of us has of his own brief, transient passage through things is also a kind of fiction, not because its matter is necessarily untrue, but because we tend to shape it to suit our own needs. We tell ourselves our own stories, selectively, in order to keep our sense of self intact.
Read this book. Make notes in the margins. Underline passages that you find particularly interesting. Agree with any or all of the authors on one point, disagree with same on any other—but read this. And, while we’re at it, read other books like it (some I’ve recommended here and others I will recommend eventually)—but read about writing and think about what you’ve read.