It’s been a whirlwind of a semester. I had six textbooks, so today I’m going to share my thoughts on the first three. These are from the Art of series by Graywolf Press, edited by Charles Baxter roughly 14 years ago. Since an MFA student first recommended The Art of Subtext to me, I’ve been hooked. Now that I’m able to read again with some consistency, I’ve been looking for an excuse to read through the series. Adding a few titles to my syllabus was a great way to start. All of three are under 200 pages (some barely over 100) and cost around $14 purchased new; most public libraries I’ve looked at also carry copies.
The Art of Time in Fiction: As Long As It Takes by Joan Silber
A slender primer on how fiction employs time to make its point, Silber’s book is a rewarding and insightful read. Each chapter examines a different approach to time and its effects on short story and novel structure, character, and theme. From long time to slowed time, switchback time to fabulous time, she provides a plethora of examples drawn from Proust, García Márquez, al-Saadawi, Munro, and Baldwin. Her perceptive analyses of how authors mold time in fiction to make their points inspired me as a writer and delighted me as a reader. A handy review of chronological structure that I am sure to return to again and again.
The Art of Perspective: Who Tells the Story by Christopher Castellani
A helpful tour of perspective as a literary technique, Castellani’s volume argues that there is no perfect point-of-view choice in a literary work. Rather, it’s always a question of the writer’s goal—to locate the individual within the societal, or to immerse the reader within the individual—and whether their narrator(s) support this overarching “narrative strategy.” Ranging from E. M. Forster to Grace Paley, from Lorrie Moore to Faulkner, Castellani reflects on his own struggles as a gay writer to settle on narrators, perspective, and narrative strategy—and examines the political power and responsibility of these choices.
Although he revisits and analyzes some of my favorite authors in rewarding ways, I never quite caught onto his own organizational strategy or figured out why, exactly, these particular works were thrown together in this particular order. A pleasant stroll through works where the narration excels, it ended before it really started getting somewhere. Still, it fundamentally changed my thinking about perspective as central to the each story’s narrative strategy.
The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story by Edwidge Danticat
This wasn’t quite what I’d expected. I had picked it up expecting a craft guide on time, endings, and death in fiction. Instead, I discovered a beautiful memoir of grief after a mother’s death. And because writing is at the core of Danticat’s experience of her grief, it’s also a concise compendium of the literature that has helped her approach and make sense of death and grief. The passages where Danticat examines Toni Morrison’s or Gabriel García Márquez’s portrayals of death are rich, packed with the stylistic insights of a woman who is not only a master writer but also a master reader.
She quotes García Márquez as he explains that he knew how to write Remedios the Beauty’s death only once he had the detail of the sheets flapping on the clothesline. Danticat also breaks down the scene where Morrison writes an infanticide in Beloved, examining where Morrison’s word choice allows children and mothers to be children and mothers, and where it does not, as well as how her use of the slave catchers’ point of view renders the scene’s horror more effectively, focusing our gaze on the moment of violence rather than Sethe’s internal experience. These are the passages I picked up the book for, and Danticat doesn’t disappoint.
However, it is a departure from “The Art of” series in several significant ways. The first and most noticeable is the prevalence of memoir. It is as much, often more, about Danticat’s grief and the literature she finds solace in, as it is about craft itself. At root, it is a book about a writer trying to make sense of grief after a loved one’s death, not a volume exploring the technical how’s and why’s of depicting death in literature.
And while the book is divided into chapters addressing different types of death in literature (suicide, executions, natural disasters), there are no chapters centered on two of the most common death scenes in literature: murder and illness. This may be due to the fact that Danticat collected essays published elsewhere and repurposed them for this volume. Whatever the reason, it is a regrettable omission, in a book whose title promises a broader investigation of how novelists “write the final story.”
Finally, much of the book—perhaps all, from a certain vantage point—is about grief, not death. It is a wonderful meditation on grief, its circularity, and the way it permeates our world. For those experiencing grief, it can offer solace. But for those looking to read about literary craft, it teases, more than satisfies.
Ultimately, it is a book of two minds, torn between death and grief, literary craft and memoir, and by the final chapters, it comes down firmly on the side of memoir and grief. If I’d picked it up knowing this, or if the title had been more accurate, my reading experience would have been quite different, less frustrating and more pleasurable. A magnificent meditation on mortality that simply needed better packaging or a clearer focus.
Part of the joy of designing your own MFA, targeted to your specific goals as a writer, is setting your own reading list. Still, it can be crucial to challenge ourselves with reading we wouldn’t have chosen on our own. My next list will cover the last three textbooks this semester, which were not really the books I wanted to dive into. And if you have some favorite books on writing craft, let me know in the comments. Happy reading!