One of the things I inherited from my mother was her collection of writing textbooks. Most of them date from the 1940s and 1950s; a few are as recent as the 1970s. It’s fascinating to look at them, especially in light of my own far more recent collection, and see how teaching people to write fiction has changed.
The first thing that’s obvious is the deep, deep divide in the earlier how-to-write books between “pulp” fiction and “real” fiction (it’s even phrased that way in a few). In the earliest books, there is “good fiction” – that is, the literary fiction that was respected – and that other stuff. Consequently, there are two kinds of how-to-write books: the ones that take a literary approach, and the ones that talk bluntly about what kinds of stories the popular audience wants and how to deliver them.
Among my collection of how-to-write books, the division is not nearly so clear. There are books that were pretty clearly written to be textbooks for college-level creative writing classes, but they don’t have the same condescending attitude (for the most part) toward popular fiction as their predecessors. The less academic books talk about things like quality, style, and theme as well as about the practicalities of writing action, structuring plot, and composing realistic-yet-readable dialog. The divide is still there to some extent, but it’s much less deep.
The second thing that is evident is that sixty or seventy years ago, the short story was the crown jewel of literary achievement. Hardly any of the older books on the literary side talk about writing novels; on the other hand, there are a number of them that are essentially collections of highly respected short stories with a few “study questions” at the end. The same authors appear over and over: Hemingway, Jackson, Thurber, Chekov, James, Twain. It’s the how-to-sell books that talk about novels, and even some of them involve a lot more short story examples than book-length works (though of course, the short story market was a lot larger in the 1940s and 50s than it is now, so it’s understandable).
The modern part of my how-to-write collection contains a few books that use the short-stories-as-examples technique, but far fewer of them (possibly reflecting the collapse of the short fiction market; possibly reflecting the difficulty of getting reprint permissions; but possibly reflecting as well a change in the philosophy of how teaching folks to write fiction should happen). The two (out of at least fifty titles) I can think of both use similar formats: the author writes about some particular aspect of writing, then has the short story that exemplifies it, followed by an analysis. In other words, the authors do a whole lot more work than just coming up with a set of leading questions.
The third big difference between the older how-to-write books and the newer ones is that all of them are overall, general texts. They all talk about all aspects of writing, from writing the first draft to plot and dialog to revising. Even the ones that are little more than collections of short stories look at different aspects of the stories they’ve collected: the first story will have questions that focus on structure; the second, ones that focus on dialog; the third, questions that focus on writing comedy, and so on.
From where I sit, I can easily count fourteen newer how-to-write books with titles like “Revising” “Plot” “Dialog” “Handbook of Short Story Writing” “Fiction Writer’s Research Handbook” … and that’s not even counting all the genre-specific stuff like “Creating Fantasy” and “How to write Speculative Fiction.” In other words, a sizeable number of the modern how-to-write books focus on one specific area or aspect of writing.
I think that the closing of the gap between so-called literary and so-called pulp fiction is a good thing. I’ve never met a writer who didn’t care about the quality of his or her work, regardless of what they wrote, and I think it is a good thing for this to be reflected in the books that try to teach fiction writing. The slow demise of the short story, I’m less happy about. I’m a novelist myself, so seeing more representation of novels and talk about how to write them in the how-to books seems to me like a Good Thing, but I don’t like this complete reversal. On the other hand, the market is what it is, and there’s no getting around the fact that there are very few short story markets left.
That last point, though…on the one hand, it’s nice to be able to dig into a single aspect of the writing craft in depth and detail, and some of those one-aspect books do exactly that. Others, though, don’t have depth so much as the illusion of it – many pages of questionable advice that makes it sound as if this one thing is the key to writing great/selling fiction. And even if the advice was brilliant…well, a book with one brilliant aspect and everything else mediocre-to-bad is not what most of the writers I know want to write.
On the plus side, the number of how-to-write books that take completely different approaches to writing fiction means that people who are more intuitive than analytic, or more practical than academic, or vice versa, have somewhere to go. No matter how many times someone says “There is no One True Way” or “Everyone works differently,” it’s a lot easier to believe it when you have an actual how-to-write book in front of you written by someone who does it similarly to the way you do.
I do think that it’s worth looking back at some of those older books. Some of them have things in them I haven’t seen anywhere else…and I like having my preconceptions shaken up every now and then. So I’m going to spend the next few posts talking about ways of looking at writing that I’ve found in some of those older books. Maybe some of the newer ones, too.