I decided years ago that I was no longer going to give readings dressed like a bum. That’s the only way to put it: no more raggedy jeans and tennis shoes, no more flannel shirts with the long johns showing at the ends of the sleeves. I went and bought a couple of suits, some ties and white shirts, and a pair of dress shoes.
But on one trip I forgot to pack the damn shoes. So I asked the woman who was my host for my visit to a midwestern town if she could point me to a place where I could buy a pair. A Brooks Brothers, she said helpfully, was less than a block from the hotel. So I walked there, bought the shoes, and walked back wearing them. By the time I got to the hotel, they were already hurting. The woman—let’s call her Delores—came to fetch me 20 minutes later. We had an hour to kill before the reading, and she asked if I would like to see the offices of the literary magazine she and her husband were running. It was within walking distance. Getting there took 10 minutes, and I was now in considerable pain from the new shoes; they seemed to be cutting into my ankles.
She took me to an office, where she showed me back copies of the magazine, going back several decades. It was an old magazine, and she was a good editor and a good person. I liked her. She showed me a room off the office, a warehouse, really, with metal shelves stacked with books. She and her husband were also running a press. All of the books, all of them, were books of instructions for constructing one’s novel-story-play-poem—you name it (if you are reading this, you probably can)—the kinds of volumes advertised prominently in Writing magazines.
Now, I’m not speaking about books dealing with the aesthetics of the task, or with essays about the craft and critical analysis of examples of it—and we have several very fine volumes in that vein (Charles Baxter’s Burning Down the House and John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction come to mind)—no, I’m talking about straight how-to books, most of which claimed to offer shortcut advice, practical instructions on “writing your say the genre,” and even in some cases “secrets” of the novelist’s or story writer’s or poet’s trade. That day, with Delores, I stood among the titles, amazed. Stack upon stack of them.
“These sell really well,” she told me. “You wouldn’t believe how many people want to be writers out there.”
I said, “Damn.” That was what came out of me. We were looking at 50 different titles—a lot. More than I would’ve believed existed. And in the next moment, she offered me $10,000 to write one. “Really,” she said. “These kinds of books sell better than the fiction books.”
“Well,” I said. “Lordy.” I picked one up and put it down, picked up another and turned it in my hand and put it down. “Lordy.”
“Ten thousand dollars,” she said. “And I’ve heard you lecture. You could knock one of these off in a few days, I’ll bet.”
I was not—am not—in a position to take that amount of money lightly when it is offered to me, even for something I would never have thought of unless it came to me in this fashion. I have a family to support, children in college. So for an instant I was speechless. She stared, quietly waiting for my answer.
“You’re serious,” I got out at last.
“Well,” I said, stalling for time. I was appalled. I’d forgotten the discomfort of the new shoes. “I’m—well, I’m working on this novel, you know. And I can’t imagine when I’d have the time to do it.”
“If you ever get some time—I mean it. Give me a call.”
“Um,” I said. And I felt myself deciding to go ahead and express something of my astonishment. “You know, I’m not really much in favor of this kind of thing. I had a conversation with a woman a year or so ago about her writing, and I asked what she was reading. Turns out that all her reading was in how-to books about writing her novel. She said she’d read them all, that they seemed to have been written for her, and her novel.”
“See?” Delores said. “And how was her writing?”
“It read as though it had been composed by one of those electronic calculators. An adding machine.”
Delores smiled. “Well, they do sell well, these books. And if you ever want to write one, let me know.”
I’d completely forgotten about the shoes.
Take a cursory look online. Amazon.com lists 4,470 titles under the heading of How to Write a Book. There, mixed with titles like How to Write a Chick Lit Novel and How to Write and Sell Your Novel are titles like How to Manage Your Home Remodel. Of course it’s the how to phrase that makes the listing what it is and where it is, but in fact, in terms of the expectations and the implied message, these books belong together, and according to the prevailing wisdom of our time, constructing a novel or a poem or a play is no different than building a back deck on your house.
The trouble of course is that a good book is not something you can put together like a model airplane. It does not lend itself to that kind of instruction. Every day books are published that contain no real artfulness in the lines, books made up of clichés and limp prose, stupid stories offering nothing but high concept and plot—or supra-literary books that shut out even a serious reader in the name of assertions about the right of an author to be dull for a good cause. (No matter how serious a book is, if it is not entertaining, it is a failure.) I’m not talking about the books we write or publish in the attempt to answer the need for entertainment at whatever level one chooses. And I have no quarrel with the genres, because to help people escape from life is harmless, and honorable enough, and in its way just as valuable as helping them escape into it. (Though I am a bit weary of the stream of stories from undergraduate students about the undead that I’m lately getting. I sometimes think all the zombie stories were written by one stupendously energetic fellow with a serious skin problem and not the slightest lick of talent—they are all so much alike, and so cloyingly adolescent.)
My quarrel is with the implication in the how-to books market that one can merely read them to find the magic secret for writing well enough to publish. Recently, at a college where I was lecturing, a student told me, with great pride, that he had “over a hundred books” in his library—I could see that I was meant to be impressed by the number, and that he considered himself a vastly well-read type of guy. He went on to say that many in his collection are how-to books. This person wants to be a writer, but he doesn’t want to do the work. Being a writer is a stance he wants to take. He did not come to writing from reading books, good or bad. He came to it from deciding it might be cool to walk around in that role. I meet this kind of “writer” far too often now in my travels around the country—even, occasionally, in the writing programs.