Books Briefing: What Famous Writers Had to Say About Writing
Your weekly guide to the best in books
In one of the earliest issues of The Atlantic, the poet and essayist Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. made a direct appeal to his audience on behalf of his fellow writers: “Deal gently with us, ye who read!”
He wanted it to be known that writing isn’t an easy business: It can be frustrating, mystifying, isolating. And that’s just the beginning, if our full archive of writers’ musings on writing is to be believed. Technical writing is a battle between clarity and respectability, according to the economist John Kenneth Galbraith. Resonance and beauty were always chancy in the eyes of the short-story writer and novelist Eudora Welty. Critics pushed the Native Son author Richard Wright to sublimate the racism he portrayed. The Pulitzer Prize–winning writer Edith Wharton could never quite discover where inspiration stemmed from.
Writing the same year as Holmes, Thomas Wentworth Higginson had no lack of warnings for aspiring authors. But he urged them to write and keep writing in spite of it all. Luckily, at least one of his readers, 32-year-old Emily Dickinson, listened.
Each week in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas, and ask you for recommendations of what our list left out.
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What We’re Reading
John Kenneth Galbraith emphasizes the importance of straightforward facts
“The writer who seeks to be intelligible needs to be right; he must be challenged if his argument leads to an erroneous conclusion and especially if it leads to the wrong action. But he can safely dismiss the charge that he has made the subject too easy. The truth is not difficult.”
Eudora Welty considers the desire to connect
“I think we write stories in the ultimate hope of communication, but so do we make jelly in that hope. Communication and hope of it are conditions of life itself … We hope someone will taste our jelly and eat it with even more pleasure than it deserves and ask for another helping—no more can we hope for in writing our story.”
Richard Wright counters criticism of his writing about race in America
“To ask a writer to deny the validity of his sensual perceptions is to ask him to be ‘expedient’ enough to commit spiritual suicide for the sake of politicians … My task is to weigh the effects of our civilization upon the personality, as it affects it here and now. If, in my weighing of those effects, I reveal rot, pus, filth, hate, fear, guilt, and degenerate forms of life, must I be consigned to hell?”
Edith Wharton reflects on the mysteries of the creative process
“These people of mine, whose ultimate destiny I know, walk to it by ways unrevealed to me beforehand. Not only their speech, but what I might call their subsidiary action, seems to be their very own.”
Thomas Wentworth Higginson advises young writers to dedicate themselves to their art
“Do not waste a minute, not a second, in trying to demonstrate to others the merit of your own performance. If your work does not vindicate itself, you cannot vindicate it, but you can labor steadily on to something which needs no advocate but itself.”
Last week, we asked what books inspired by ancient myths you would recommend. Alison Plott, a reader in Chicago, suggested Circe, Madeline Miller’s “lyrical, poetic, and occasionally heartbreaking” retelling of the story of a magically gifted Greek goddess. Lorraine Berry, from Ormond Beach, Florida, and Wynne Cougill, from Washington, D.C., both put forward Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie, a modern take on Sophocles’s Antigone. “Shamsie’s retelling is note-perfect,” writes Lorraine, “and yet something completely new.”
What challenging book do you love? Tweet at us with the hashtag #TheAtlanticBooksBriefing, or fill out the form here.
This week’s newsletter is written by Annika Neklason. The book she’s reading on the train is My Year of Rest and Relaxation, by Ottessa Moshfegh.
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