Two more books have recently joined the legion by writers about writing. They are Steve Almond's "This Won't Take But a Minute, Honey," which I wrote about previously, and a new one from P.D. James, entitled "Talking About Detective Fiction."
The P.D. James is an interesting read. She's a lively and intelligent writer with an encyclopedic knowledge of her chosen genre. Her book is a history of crime fiction that also sets out to refute the supposedly conventional idea (I suppose it is a conventional idea) that crime fiction is somehow second rate. This sets up an interesting paradox in her narrative: the more she argues that crime fiction deserves as much respect as so-called literary fiction, and the more she explains the conventions of crime fiction as a genre, the more convincingly she demonstrates why crime fiction might be regarded as a limited form. After all, as James explains, in any crime story there must be a closed community of known suspects, a chapter in which the body is discovered, a detective who cannot know more than the reader about the crime, who must also have an assistant, who is not quite as clever. There must be a solution, and it must be a surprise, but plausible in light of the known facts. And so on. It does start to sound like a more confining genre than what we call literary fiction, the only rule of which seems to be that the novel tell us a good story that illuminates something meaningful about the human condition.
That said, James has a good argument to make that all art takes a form, and the challenge with any work is to invent something new in one's chosen form. Even Jane Austen's Emma, as she points out, is a kind of mystery novel. I like the early chapters, in which James seems alive to the expansive possibilities of the form, better than the latter chapters, in which she spends more time ticking off the requirements of detective fiction. And, as far as "writing about writing" books go, this one sends one message home loud and clear: If you want to write a good story in any genre (and literary fiction is, after all, a genre like any other), the secret is to have an inside-out understanding of the elements of the form.
As noted before, Steve Almond has written a different kind of writer's book. Each of his short chapters on writing is a pocket manifesto. I especially like the chapter in which he describes, on the one hand, the feeling one has as a writer that he or she has something profound to communicate to the world, matched against the often dreary reality of the practice of writing and the work one is likely to produce. Five failed short shorts to one really good McSweeney's list is about my ratio (and maybe I'm being generous to myself here), and I think something like this is probably the mean batting average among the writing crowd. Almond's book is perhaps more inspirational than instructional, and it does have an oddly frustrated tone in places, but it's nice to read, even if only to remind yourself that, in your noble suffering for your art, you are not alone.