TEXT review

A useful addition to resources for teaching writing

review by Jeremy Fisher


Andrew Cowan
The Art of Writing Fiction
Longman, Harlow, UK 2011
ISBN 9781408248348
Pb 240pp GPB16.99


Andrew Cowan is the Director of the MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, and in that capacity he delivered the keynote address to the 2010 Australasian Association of Writing Programs (AAWP) conference, ‘Blind Spots: What Creative Writing Doesn’t Know’. The writing program at the University of East Anglia is the longest standing in the UK. Cowan states in his introduction that his book was written with the undergraduate syllabus there in mind, and that the chapters resemble his lessons. However, The Art of Writing Fiction does not read as if it was written to fit into a writing program. It seems better suited to a residential workshop, particularly with regard to the many activities featured in the book, though Cowan says these are the same as he uses in his teaching and are arranged in a similar sequence.

Perhaps the workshop tone of the book is influenced by the fact that Cowan has based much of his extended commentary in the book on individual or group conversations with his Masters’ students. From the many informative digressions shedding light on the work of other writers, as well as on Cowan’s own writing practice, it is also apparent that the book is ‘informed by an awareness of literary theory and the literary canon’ (2). As a ‘how to’ writing guide, it differs from so many by highlighting the importance of reading. For Cowan, ‘writing is the out-breath, the exhalation’, while reading is ‘the in breath, the inspiration’ (2), a view that I would endorse for all writing programs.

The book starts with an examination of writers’ routines, encouraging readers to think of how they organise their day to write, and to also consider the problems they face when they try to write. There are a number of interesting exercises in the first chapter that I used with some of my undergraduate students in a short fiction course. These provoked a great deal of discussion and assisted in breaking the ice.

Cowan encourages the use of observational journals, so his next chapter offers guidelines for doing that. He draws a distinction between a journal, where observations are recorded, and a scrapbook, in which pictures and text and found objects are pasted, but in practice such recording devices may be merged. I’m unsure whether or not they are useful for all writers all the time – as a writer, I don’t regularly use either myself any more – but for beginning writers they may well be useful tools.

Cowan’s third chapter examines automatic writing. The aim of the exercises here is to free the writer from the restraints of contemplation and consideration. He immerses his students in writing practice, encouraging output. His text is accompanied with a steady rhythm of footnotes that allow him to, at different times, contradict, elaborate on or provide some other insight into his main text. I’m not usually a fan of footnotes being used in this manner, often finding them a distraction, but this is not the case with this book. I often found myself reading the footnotes as a sub-text or an alternative narrative.

As the book progresses, Cowan introduces writing techniques, as well as writing about place and character. I found the chapter on voices a bit too brief. Cowan attempts to cover here both authorial voice and how conversation is used in fiction. He adds a further dimension – vernacular voices. To my mind, if all of these are meant to be covered in just one week of a semester, as Cowan suggests in his introduction, none will be well understood by students. I found this one of the less satisfying chapters.

The following chapter on point of view, though, is much more effective. While Cowan pays homage to Genette, he balances the theoretical with well modulated references to his own work as well as the work of writers as various as LP Hartley, JD Salinger, John Fowles, William Faulkner, F Scott Fitzgerald, Jeffrey Eugenides, Peter Ho Davies, Nancy Lee, Joseph Conrad, Charlotte Brontë and Emily Brontë, as well as many others.

Cowan leaves structure, language, style and grammar for the final chapters of his book. I am not sure I agree with this placement, but I understand the logic. These things are seen as part of the finishing process after the rough stone has been chiselled into shape. In my own teaching, and I suspect that Cowan is the same, these aspects are integral and integrated. Nevertheless, what’s offered here is good, solid material that will engage students whether taught early or late in the semester.

The book features a final short chapter on workshopping, a bibliography and a moderately successful index.

Despite it seeming to be more aimed at residential workshops, this book might well also act as a useful textbook for a semester course on writing fiction. However, I am uncertain whether it is available in Australia. The website of Pearson Australia, which is affiliated with publisher Longman, has no details of the book, and the UK website states the book is not available for sale to the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand or Japan, although it appeared to be available on Amazon UK.



Jeremy Fisher teaches writing at the University of New England, Armidale, NSW.


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Vol 16 No 1 April 2012
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Enza Gandolfo