Who's the Reader?

Review by Tom Shapcott


The Writer's Reader: A Guide to Writing Fiction and Poetry
Edited by Brenda Walker
Sydney: Halstead Press, 2002
Pb. 207 pages
ISBN 1 875684 75 1
RRP $32.95


This collection consists of an Introduction by the editor, Brenda Walker, then 26 brief essays, then a coda by Peter Bishop. There are 15 pieces on writing fiction, 5 on the subject of poetry, and a half dozen essays on general topics ranging from publication to the overall necessity for writers to be readers and, perhaps most interestingly, a piece by Meme McDonald called 'Whose Story?' which addresses an issue I find comes up again and again among writing students: What are the moral obligations of a writer to others, where material is based upon actual characters or direct and recognisable appropriation?

Reading the book, my first question was: Who is the actual intended reader? It is described in the title as 'a guide to writing' but I quickly became aware that, though virtually all the articles are addressed to an imagined apprentice writer, they were really intended for apprentice teachers of writers.

A separate author has been commissioned to write each essay, and these, in my mind, divided into writers-who-are-teachers, and teachers-who-are-writers. There were a couple of surprises there, when I began to make that mental distinction. As a general rule, though, writers-who-are-teachers had a native cunning that insisted their pieces be immediately readable, be lively or entertaining, and personal. They illustrated the primary adage that an author cannot afford to bore his/her reader. The pieces which I mentally classified as by teachers-who-are-writers did tend to be a tad didactic, or eager to prove a point or a philosophy, or pointed to a mental line in the sand that pupils might be expected to toe.

The specific subject of each essay was useful, and the first recommendation I would make on this book was that these bite-size essays provide an excellent crib for writers new to the teaching game. In the opening section, 'Writing Fiction', Sari Smith has a pithy piece on that first imperative, Journals and Notebooks. Then Marion Halligan provides a highly readable chapter on Structuring the Story, Michael Meehan discusses Open Forms of Narrative, while Glenda Adams opens the subject of the question of Voice. This is a theme that is, in various ways, further developed by Marele Day, Antoni Jach and Anthony Macris. As we all know, it is a field crucial to the whole structuring of a piece of writing.

The surprise discovery of this opening section, though, is Kevin Brophy on The Sentence in Time. It is brilliant and riveting. One should not be surprised; Brophy's ground-breaking book Creativity was an important Australian contribution to contemporary considerations of the craft.

Tess Brady, on Place, in contrast offered immediate insights into this essential, but sometimes neglected, aspect of establishing and consolidating your fiction.

The essay which required most 'allowance' on my part, as a reader, was Antoni Jach's piece on The Narrator and Narrative Modes in the Novel. It was a slightly dogged disputation with the 'Show don't Tell' line of persuasion, arguing that the narrative voice can be hobbled by too much reliance on the 'Mimetic' to the exclusion of the 'Diegetic' (using, assiduously, Gerard Genette's definitions). I use his own novel, The Layers of the City, in my own classes, and I found this essay interesting as an exegesis on the structure and intent of that book. But as a general proposition to new writers, I felt it held the cane in one hand and the Theory in the other.

The second section, 'Kinds Of Fiction', provides some entertaining and thought-provoking pieces by Jean Bedford, Delia Falconer, Alan Gold (a cheeky run-down on Popular Fiction), Van Ikin on Science Fiction and Fantasy (which almost converted me 100% to the genres) and a marvellously alluring essay by Stephen Muecke on Fictocritical Writing, which he titles, perhaps tongue in cheek, The Fall. Only Heather Wearne's piece on Autobiography seemed a bit, well, ponderous, for such a fascinating subject. It carried too many burdens of personal, or feminist, discord, and did not even cite some of the spectacular instances of autobiographical writing by women in Australia. I would have expected at least some reference to Dorothy Hewett's Wild Card, or even Eve Langley's thinly-fictionalised The Pea Pickers, for instance.

The section 'Writing Poetry', which is the only one with two essays each (by Dennis Haskell and Marcella Polain) struck me as a bit perfunctory, as if Brenda Walker, as editor, felt an obligation but not a passion to include this area. It did not pass my notice that these two contributors were, like Brenda Walker herself, also from Western Australia. Only Deborah Westbury is a tothersider. Dennis Haskell's pieces cover the ground allotted to them, but I must say, this is not the book to suggest to your student who has discovered a passion and an aptitude for poetry.

The remaining half-dozen short pieces are fillers, which means that the real meat of the volume is its concern with prose writing, and particularly fiction, though the crossing of genres is becoming increasingly commonplace, and aspects of the implications involved are touched on here.

Nigel Krauth has a necessary and splendidly down-to-earth piece on Learning Writing through Reading, in which he pre-empts what I would have said in this review on the plethora of How-To books. My shelves groan with writing manuals, from Robert Louis Stephenson (Essays on the Art of Writing, Chatto & Windus 1920) to Ursula Le Guin (Steering the Craft, The Eighth Mountain Press 1998), Nadine Gordimer (Writing and Being, Harvard Uni. Press 1995) and all the many recent Australian ventures into this obviously lucrative market. I am selective, though, in loaning specific volumes to students (and I keep that invaluable 'Check Book' from Dymocks to keep trace of borrowings). Some students wax enthusiastic over Carmel Bird's sharp-nosed informality, especially in Dear Writer (Vintage 1996), while others prefer to stay with Kate Grenville's The Writing Book (Allen & Unwin 1998), both of which have gone through reprints.

The outstanding book, overall, in providing in-depth encouragement and illumination of fiction writing, is the Canadian Jack Hodgins' A Passion for Narrative (McClelland & Stewart 1993). It is still the leader in the field, for my money, and its careful modulation through the processes of evolution of a manuscript, with lively and likeable exercises and lots of specific illustrations from the work of Canadian, American, Australian and British authors, remains a tribute to the breadth of his reading and research. He even offers suggestions on postmodernist techniques though, frankly, he remains at heart an advocate of the 'Show don't Tell' school. In my own classes I certainly try to suggest the positives of that approach, though I also point out limitations, and offer a plethora of illustrations from very recent writing. If, as Nigel Krauth points out in his essay, reading is a crucial aspect of the process of becoming a writer, then reading in the whole spectrum of immediately contemporary writing is also very important. After all, novice writers will, in due course, be submitting their manuscripts to publishers who will not only be aware of what has appeared in the bookshops over the past eighteen months, they will also know what will appear. A manuscript modelled on the style or approach of a book well-loved thirty years ago will not necessarily seem pertinent to a publisher's editor this month.

Knowing the poverty (in money terms) of students, I prepare a Course Reader each year which is as important as the craft manuals (even Jack Hodgins') on the recommended reading list. It covers the range of writing genres, and though it sometimes traces a line of development (say, from examples by Gertrude Stein, to Patrick White, to Ania Walwicz) more generally it groups pieces by immediately contemporary writers, Australian and overseas. Gillian Mears may be juxtaposed with, say, Alice Munro; Rohinton Mistry with Christina Stead. The object is to invite the student to widen their range of reading, as well as to look at the challenges each author may have faced in tackling each particular subject, or theme. My purpose is to ask the apprentice writer to look at the challenges faced by authors, not be authors-as-theoretical analysts.

In looking at The Writer's Reader, then, my next question would be: Is this a book to offer to students? Frankly, I see individual pieces as full of pithiness and appropriateness; I would be tempted to use these with my students, or to refer them on to them, after we had had a seminar on the relevant subject. As I said at the beginning, it seems to me an intelligent crib for a novice teacher in creative writing, a short-cut to hone in onto necessary aspects in the teaching process. I am glad to have it on my shelves. Its real value is in the essays on prose writing. But for in-depth writing in that field, the Jack Hodgins book remains my centrepiece.

For anyone interested in writing poetry, one book I have found particularly helpful is Writing Poetry in Hodder & Stoughton's Teach Yourself series (1997). Like Jack Hodgins' book, it offers many and stimulating on-the-spot exercises, guaranteed to help the novice poet to become inventive, as well as worldly-wise.


Tom Shapcott is Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Adelaide.


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Vol 7 No 1 April 2003
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Tess Brady