Research in fiction writing: Thoughts on popular writing books, part 1

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Now that I’ve read through a list of “academic” writing books, I’m working my way through a set of more popular writing books in search of information on the role of research in fiction writing. Rather than devote whole posts to each individual book, I’ll just be sharing some brief thoughts as I go along.

Today, I’m taking a look at The Art of Fiction by John Gardner, Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande, and revisiting Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King.

The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers by John Gardner: When I first started this project, I had some ideas about what some of the differences might be between academic and popular writing books. Academic writing books, I thought, would be focused much more on Great Literature and focus less, if at all, on the “how-to” aspects of writing while popular books would be lighter and more encouraging in tone. If that ends up being the case, then The Art of Fiction is kind of a curious hybrid. The tone of the book is very academic and Gardner makes it clear that he’s mainly concerned with what he calls “serious fiction” but the actual content leans much more toward the “how-to” of things than most of the academic writing books I’ve read, with advice on things like character and plotting. When Gardner talks about good writing, he mentions examples from Great Literature but just as often he starts by suggesting an idea and then spinning it out from there to illustrate the point he’s trying to make, which I thought was really valuable. Since the book was published in 1982, there are inevitably aspects of it that feel a little dated—it uses “he” as a generic pronoun (a fact which Gardner himself notes in a discussion of how language can reflect culture and values) and I found it pretty glaring that all his examples of Great Literature came from works by men. But I actually ended up liking that when it comes to academic and popular writing books, Gardner’s work here seems to occupy an unexpected in-between place. Nothing here about research though, except a curious passing comment that Gardner makes about whether it’s valuable to seek out life experiences in order to write about them. He kind of mocks this idea, saying that it’s just as easy and useful to find someone who’s had that experience and talk to them as it is to seek out the experience for yourself. Incidentally, Wallace Stegner says something similar in On the Teaching of Creative Writing. So while hands-on research comes up a lot as the most valuable type of research for creative writers, apparently seeking out life experiences for the sake of your art is considered a little more questionable.

Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande: In The Elephants Teach, D.G. Myers traces the history of creative writing programs in American universities. At one point, he discusses how writing textbooks which covered the “how-to” aspects of writing started to become popular in the 1920s. These books were primarily written by women and so were considered “women’s books,” aimed at self-help (according to Myers, they still are). Becoming a Writer was published in 1934 and even though there’s not a lot of information in it about technique, I suspect that it qualifies as one of those “women’s books” Myers talked about from that era. Its closest cousin from more recent times that I can think of is Steal Like an Artist in the sense that the advice Brande gives comes in relatively bite-sized pieces and she treats writing as something that anyone with the proper motivation and sense of magic can do—no special genius required. This “no special genius required” bit is what seems to set this book apart from the ones that came before it and also from a lot of the more academic writing books I’ve read so far. Even still, a lot of what Brande has to say isn’t that different from those more genius-focused books. For example, reading Great Literature like a writer is still very much a required component of being a writer yourself, in her eyes. But given that this is probably the oldest book on writing I’ve read so far (not counting Elements of Style), it’s possible that even though Brande is saying the same things everyone else says, she said it before they did. So there. Nothing about research, but a lot of good practical advice and encouragement.

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King: This is a book I previously read for my original “10 Books Project.” It made this list too. I decided not to reread it since the first time around I found that it doesn’t talk about research at all, though it does allude to research by advising the prospective fiction writer against including too much information about “pet hobbies” and stuff like that in their story. I remember a specific example the authors used that had something to do with burglar alarms. Like, a writer the authors had worked with as editors had (it is implied) done some research on burglar alarms and ended up including way too much information in his story about the different types of alarms and how they all work as a result. What’s interesting about this to me is that it once again suggests that there’s a “right” and “wrong” way to incorporate research into a story, which implies that there is some craft-related wisdom around this topic, but no one ever talks about what the “right” way is or what it might look like in a story that uses research well. Probably this is because research that’s used well will be largely invisible to the average reader but still. Anyway, I really hated this book when I first read it. You can read my original post about it here. 

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