Christina Vasilevski

Toronto Writer/Editor for Content Strategy and User Experience.

On Writing vs. Bird by Bird: Franzenfreude? Gender bias?

You may recall that late in 2010, Jonathan Franzen released his latest novel, Freedom, to widespread critical acclaim. Such acclaim, in fact, that two female authors, Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner, criticized the book review establishment for their adulation – or rather, the lack of such when female writers tackle the same topics. In the way typical of any sort of internet dust-up, their complaints spawned a new term: Franzenfreude.

Dismissive name aside, they have a point. Vida, an organization that promotes and analyzes the impact of women in the literary arts, does an annual survey of the prominence of female authors in the literary establishment, and the numbers don’t lie. In 2010 and 2011, men wrote the majority of both the books reviewed and the book reviews themselves in established publications like the New York Review of Books and The Atlantic.

In light of this, once I finished both On Writing and Bird by Bird and analyzed my opinions of them, I had misgivings. Was I placing more value on On Writing simply because it was written by a man? Did I dislike Bird by Bird – which I felt was plagued by new-age speak, unvarnished neuroses, and runaway metaphors – because it was written by a woman? I majored in Women’s Studies in university, and I’d like to think that I’d be a bit more self-aware of my critical responses than that.

I’m still not sure what to think. Stephen King and Anne Lamott started writing under different circumstances for different reasons. All I can say is that the difference is illuminating. Let’s take a look at some quotes:

Here’s Stephen King describing his creation of a high school newspaper satirizing his school’s staff:

As all sophomoric humorists must be, I was totally blown away by my own wit. What a funny fellow I was! A regular mill-town H.L. Mencken! I simply must take the Vomit [his satirical paper] to school and show all my friends! They would bust a collective gut!

As a matter of fact, they did bust a collective gut; I had some good ideas about what tickled the funnybones of high school kids, and most of them were showcased in The Village Vomit. Cow Man’s prize Jersey won a livestock farting contest at Topsham Fair; in another, Old Raw Diehl was fired for sticking the eyeballs of specimen fetal pigs up his nostrils. Humor in the grand Swiftian manner, you see. Pretty sophisticated, eh? (Page 52)

Here’s Anne Lamott describing her own writing attempts during middle and high school:

But I was funny. So the popular kids let me hang out with them, go to their parties, and watch them neck with each other. This, as you can imagine, did not help my self-esteem a great deal. I thought I was a total loser. But one day I took a notebook and a pen when I went to Bolinas Beach with my father (who was not, as far as I could tell, shooting drugs yet). With the writer’s equivalent of canvas and brush, I wrote a description of what I saw….My father convinced me to show it to a teacher, and it ended up being included in a real textbook. This deeply impressed my teachers and parents and a few kids, even some of the popular kids, who invited me to even more parties so I could watch them all make out even more frequently. (Pages xvi-xvii)

She also says this a few lines up from the excerpt quoted above:

All I ever wanted was to belong, to wear that hat of belonging. (Page xvi)

There are similarities here – both authors wrote to gain approval of some sort. But when King wrote, it was to entertain his friends. He was doing this all for fun. When Lamott wrote, she used her skill to gain some sort of social standing among her peers. She wrote for herself, but used the success of that writing as leverage. Note that King mentions actually having friends, and Lamott doesn’t.

This lies at the heart of my enjoyment of On Writing on one hand, and my dislike of Bird by Bird on the other: I get the sense that Lamott is trying really hard to prove herself. Whenever she describes her writing process, it sounds like she goes through a lot of emotional turmoil to write something effective and lasting.

I get it – although writing is difficult and unpredictable, sometimes the results are breathtaking. But I’m sick and tired of hearing that writing is an act of Herculean audacity and emotional catharsis. It can be that way a lot of the time. But during the other times, I just want to yank the story idea out and put it on paper so it will leave me the f**k alone. I don’t need advice on the emotional aspects of writing – I need advice on how to transplant the sapling that’s taken root in my head into the fertile soil it needs to thrive.

So, there we have it. I liked the book written by a male author better because it was less emotional and more practical. I guess I’m just as bad as the literary establishment that Vida criticizes.

2012 Reading challenge, book 4: On Writing

Title: On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (10th Anniversary Edition)
Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Rating: 5 out of 5
Format: Print

The name “Stephen King” has by now become a byword for “successful author.” He’s one of those authors, along with J.K. Rowling, that are always cited as the exception to the rule that most writers won’t be able to live solely off the fruits of their writing. He’s ubiquitous. In light of both this and my interest in fantasy and sci-fi, which often encroaches upon the borders of horror fiction, it might surprise you to learn that I didn’t read my first Stephen King book until nearly 4 years ago – that book was Insomnia and even he admits it was a muddled novel. So, what do I think of a book about writing, written by one of the titans of the industry? Let’s find out.

About the book: Part memoir and part instructional manual, On Writing ties together King’s career as an author with more personal facets of his life. In an unusual move, the instructions about writing – arguably the biggest draw – are placed towards the end of the book, and On Writing instead devotes its first half to King’s childhood, adolescence, and attempts to break into the publishing world.

What I liked: From the start of this book, I felt that I was in the presence of someone who made me comfortable and welcome. More than that even, I felt a tremendous sense of self-assurance when I read it. King’s been there before, knows the pitfalls, and is happy to steer you around his memories with confidence. Every time I finished a section or chapter in this book, I told myself, “OK, it’s time to put the book down now.” And then, of their own accord, my eyes would snake down or over to the next page, and I would be held fast once again. This was, literally, the first book of the year that I could Just. Not. Put. Down.

Throughout the book, I got the sense that although writing was something he put effort into, he didn’t fall into the pretentious Byronic-hero hole that so many other authors, both beginning and established, fall victim to. (It’s a hole that I’m only now learning how to crawl out of.) Instead, he made it feel as natural, physical, and vital as chopping wood. If you have enough wood, your house stays warm. If you crank out enough words, you stay warm.

A lot of the time, I judge a book by how vividly I recall the images later, and no matter how hard I try, I can’t expunge from my mind the scene that King describes of having an ear infection as a child – one so intense that his eardrums had to be repeatedly lanced with a needle to drain the pus. I have tried and tried, with no avail, to stop imagining the looming needle coming closer to perforate my own eardrums. That is strong writing.

In the instructional section on writing, King unpacks the metaphor of a “writers’ toolbox” and runs with it. The advice inside is fairly commonplace – know your grammar, remove adverbs, etc – but they’re relayed in such a matter-of-fact manner that they acquire additional heft. He also provides an extremely useful glimpse into the revision process by including a “before and after” sample of his own writing, and then going step by step through the changes he made to tighten up his prose. Revision is an extremely important part of the writing process, but seldom is it actually demonstrated instead of discussed.

Besides all that, look at the cover. It’s got a Corgi on it! I love Corgis. Knowing that Stephen King owns them just makes him even more awesome in my book.

What I disliked: The length – it’s too short! I could easily have read another 200 pages. In particular, the move away from the memoir section was too abrupt, as it stopped nearly right after the acquisition of Carrie,  his debut novel. King did write about his substance abuse problems, but I would have appreciated greater insight on what led him down that path and why he felt he needed to self-medicate. Yes, it’s not a topic that really lends itself to a discussion of the writing craft, but it is something that a lot of writers end up dealing with anyways.

The verdict: I originally gave this book 4 out of 5 stars on Goodreads. Then I started reading Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, and that book paled in comparison to this one so much that I retroactively bumped it up another star. Whenever I read this book, I felt I was in good hands. What better can be said about an author than that?

Next up: Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.