The World According To Disher



review by Kevin Brophy






Writing Fiction: An Introduction to the Craft
Garry Disher
Allen & Unwin 2001
217pp, $19.95
ISBN 1-86508-589-8


This is a compact, intelligent, plainly written and well organised account of the elements of the craft of writing fiction. You could put it safely in any would-be writer's hands; even for an experienced writer it could act as a healthy reminder of the lessons hard won in experience and sometimes slowly forgotten as habits harden. It is a little dry, but after all it is a manual, addressing technical matters for those owners of pens and keyboards who want to put them to this particular use.

Garry Disher is himself an eminent and productive writer across the fields of literary fiction, genre fiction and young adult fiction, so he is well qualified to write from experience.

One of the strangenesses of books on writing fiction is the way that each one is written as if there are not whole libraries full of similar manuals out there, and a constant stream of new ones coming along. All of them deal with much the same set of issues. Whether it is the manual by Kate Grenville, John Marsden, Garry Disher or Carmel Bird does not matter much in the end because they will all give similar advice (though differently packaged).

One of the certainties attached to these manuals is that they will not make you a writer if that is what you hope to become. What they can do is show you broadly some of the things you will learn if you keep writing and thinking about writing. They can reveal the barriers to competence which can make writing such a long apprenticeship. For the beginning-writer who is attentive and canny about the task at hand a manual such as this can speed the process of learning so that a high level of competence is reached sooner.

One of the constant reservations I have about writing manuals is their relentless focus on 'realist' writing. Realist fiction lends itself most easily to discussion of craft. Garry Disher's book is pleasingly open to other forms of writing, and though his interest is in realist fiction as Virginia Woolf and Henry James defined it, he notes along the way, 'Rather than set out a list of prescriptions, I'll answer by saying what I look for in fiction - recognising many of you will have, or develop, different expectations but also hoping my position might help you clarify your own' (p. 28). Somehow it makes sense to read and study a manual on the craft of creating realist fiction, while it would seem ludicrous to study a manual on how to produce the surreal, the post-modern, the quirky, the elliptical, the poetic or the experimental. One position to adopt in relation to this is to suggest that those other more anarchic and more individual forms take their significance and power from the fact that they are acting in response and resistance to the reader's expectations based on a knowledge of realist fiction. In other words, the writer must know what she is rebelling against if a rebellion is to be truly effective. Garry Disher does not take up this argument, but throughout the book he is aware that realist fiction is only part of the story of fiction writing. There is for instance a section (three pages) on 'innovative fiction' which acknowledges a history of experiment in fiction and a growing number of writers interested in other ways of writing fiction - ways often dismissed or misunderstood by those expecting more craft (more realism) in their fiction.

An illusion created by how-to-write manuals is that if you pay attention to these methods, suggestions and hints then you will learn to write fiction. But this is not really how it happens. The manual is at best a beginning-point for that other business, the real business of writing. In his much-quoted essay on 'On Writing' Raymond Carver makes this point:

The World According to Garp is, of course, the marvelous world according to John Irving. There is another world according to Flannery O'Connor, and others according to William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway. There are worlds according to Cheever, Updike, Singer, Stanley Elkin, Ann Beattie, Cynthia Ozick, Donald Barthelme, Mary Robison, William Kettrridge, Barry Hannah, Ursula K. Le Guin. Every great or even very good writer makes the world over according to his own specifications.

No manual can teach this. This can only be learned through enthusiasm for reading and writing, and through that hard work of listening to yourself as you write. The other point Carver is demonstrating here is that you cannot expect to be a writer unless you are a reader. He has come to appreciate what these writers have done. He measures his achievements against theirs. His stories are in their company. This is where Garry Disher's manual on craft is invaluable for any writer or aspiring writer. The text is liberally sprinkled with references to novels and short stories, and in addition there is a usable list of sources at the back of the book. I will be following up Tillie Olsen's story 'I stand here Ironing' and Colette's 'The Other Wife' thanks to his discussion of their particular achievements and points of interest. Disher's introduction to craft is also an introduction to reading.

Rather than being constricting this book's discussion of writing as a craft and reading as a writer can expand your choices. Writing Fiction is not after all anything like the car manual in your glovebox or the instruction booklet that came with your sawbench, but a distillation of one writer's experience at remaking the world according to Disher.



  Dr Kevin Brophy is a poet and novelist, author of six books and co-ordinator of the creative writing program in the School of Creative Arts at the University of Melbourne.  



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Vol 5 No 2 October 2001
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Tess Brady