One-Minute Book Reviews

August 1, 2022

One of America’s Most Honored Journalists Reread the Hardy Boys Novels He Once Loved–And What He Found Startled Him

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Gene Weingarten, America’s only two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing, calls the Hardy Boys mysteries the novels that “most influenced” his love of his craft

When he reread the books as an adult, he made a couple of startling discoveries: Contrary to his rosy memories, the writing was so bad, it was “some of the worst bilge ever published.” But there was much to admire in the often heartbreaking, Depression-era life of their author, Leslie McFarlane, who was required by the publishers of the Hardy Boys to write under the pen name of Franklin W. Dixon. Weingarten described what he learned about McFarlane and the Hardy Boys in an article I wrote about on Medium.

https://medium.com/crows-feet/what-happened-when-a-pulitzer-winner-reread-the-hardy-boys-books-66107b46c6

July 15, 2022

7 Deadly Sins of Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’

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Stephen King’s On Writing is America’s second bestselling guide to the craft, according to Amazon rankings, and it draws rapturous praise from aspiring writers. But in my experience, more experienced writers take a dimmer of its advice.

Over at Medium, I challenge seven pieces of advice King gives in On Writing. Some of his precepts are outdated or inconsistent. Others oversimplify an issue that’s vastly more complex than King makes it. Here’s a brief excerpt from my post (dealing, in this case, with King’s views on adverbs) and a link to my responses to six others at the end of it:

‘The adverb is not your friend’

No, it’s not your friend — unless you’re Jane Austen and writing one of the most famous first lines in English: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Or you’re F. Scott Fitzgerald and writing one of the most famous last lines: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Or you’re Herman Melville ending Moby-Dick by quoting the Book of Job: “And I only am alone escaped to tell thee.” Take that, writers of the King James Version.

Yes, writers tend to overuse adverbs, especially in speech tags. But adverbs have a purpose, and the best writers don’t libel them but use them — as Austen and Fitzgerald and Melville did — to serve their purposes.

https://janiceharayda.medium.com/7-ways-stephen-kings-on-writing-loses-the-plot-2494b09dc64f

June 1, 2022

How Great Writing Helped Charlotte Curtis Blaze Trails At The New York Times

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The Ohio-born writer and editor Charlotte Curtis wasn’t just the first woman to appear on the masthead of the New York Times and to edit its op-ed page. She had earlier helped to transform its women’s section from a pink ghetto into one that welcomed diverse voices and was widely imitated by publications around the country.

How did Curtis scale the walls of the old boys’ club at a venerable newspaper? Here’s my appreciation of her work with a sidebar that gives 17 of her best leads for stories: https://medium.com/history-of-women/how-great-writing-helped-charlotte-blaze-trails-in-journalism-f36ba60eb76a

July 12, 2021

How ‘The AP Stylebook’ Can Help You If You Don’t Work for a Daily Newspaper

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Some people call The Associated Press Stylebook “the journalist’s bible.” Others call it the journalist’s book of Job. Either way, if you’re a writer, it can help you fine-tune your work.

By whatever nickname, this newsroom stalwart gathers in one volume the AP’s rules for grammar, spelling, capitalization, and other writing-related matters.

The 640-page paperback edition has more than 3,000 brief, clear, and alphabetically arranged entries, many on topics not covered by Grammarly, Microsoft Editor, or similar tools. Why should you care about its rules when more than 2,000 newspapers have died since 2000? Isn’t that like feeding insects to pterodactyls? What if you hope to write not news stories but a memoir or Amish romances or blog posts that go viral?

If you’re interested, you may want to check out my essay “The Book Writers Love to Hate and Hate to Love” on Medium, in which offers some thoughts on the stylebook based on years of working with it.

February 4, 2014

‘Oh, Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience!’ / Quote of the Day, Herman Melville

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Is any book ever “finished”? Here’s Herman Melville’s view of the subject, as described by William Pritchard:

“At the end of the ‘Cetology’ chapter in Moby-Dick, after Ishmael, or Melville, has presented us with a seemingly exhaustive classification of the various kind of whales, we are told that this ‘Cetological System’ must remain, like ‘ the great Cathedral of Cologne,’ unfinished:

‘For small erections may be finished by their first architects; grand ones, true ones, leave the copestone to posterity. God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draught – nay, but the draught of a draught. Oh, Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience!’

“The fear is of ‘succeeding’ by writing a sentence – a book – that isn’t sufficiently a ‘mighty book’ because it’s too finished. ‘To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme,’ he says elsewhere in the novel. This means that there can be no end to expression since the whale – the world out there – is inexpressible.”

From William H. Pritchard’s essay “Herman Melville” in Literary Genius: 25 Classic Writers Who Define English and American Literature (Paul Dry Books, 2007), selected and edited by Joseph Epstein with wood engravings by Barry Moser.

March 5, 2012

‘The Average American Author Earns About $9,000 a Year’ / Quote of the Day

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Herman Melville died broke after his publisher refused to give him an advance for Moby-Dick, one of America’s greatest novels. Do contemporary writers fare better? You might wonder after reading a recent essay by Scott Turow, the president of the Authors Guild. Turow noted that American publishers want to pay authors a royalty on e-books that is about half of what they pay for books on paper:

“The problem is that the average American author earns about $9,000 a year from writing as it is. Decreasing the rewards will inevitably drive more people out of the profession. And it is hugely unfair, because publishers do quite well with e-books. They have no costs for paper, printing, warehousing or distribution — and no risk, as is the case with physical books, that the volume will be returned for full credit by the bookseller, which is the great bugaboo of publishing.”

The plight of writers looks worse when you consider what Turow didn’t say: The federal poverty level (the threshold for government benefits) is $11,170 for one person. And the $9,000 a year figure he cited appears to have changed little in the past half century. More than 30 years ago, the American Society of Journalists and Authors surveyed its members and found that they earned slightly more than $10,000 a year from writing. The Authors Guild and ASJA figures suggest that writers earn roughly as much as migrant farmworkers, who have a median annual income of about $11,000.

You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.

February 9, 2012

Cruelty in Creative Writing Workshops — Quote of the Day / Francine Prose

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An old joke says that a sadist is someone who’s nice to a masochist. By that standard, you find both types in creative writing workshops that require students to submit their work for critiques by their classmates. Francine Prose suggests why in an interview with Jessica Murphy Moo in The Atlantic online, reprinted in Reading Like a Writer, that includes these comments:

Francine Prose: “I think that the idea of writing by committee, or learning to write by committee is insanity. It’s just simply insanity. I mean, writing is all about being different from everything else – not the same. So when you’re writing to satisfy the tastes of a group, and presumably you know those tastes after a while, that’s actually quite dangerous.

“ … there’s something essentially sadistic about the whole [workshop] process. I mean to sit there and have the love of your life – your work – something that close to your heart and soul, just ripped apart by strangers. …

Jessica Murphy Moo: “And not to be able to say anything.”

Francine Prose: “Yes – and not to be able to say anything. Who thought that up? It’s so cruel. And everybody essentially knows it’s so cruel, but that’s one of the many things you’re not allowed to say. This whole language of euphemism has sprung up around the inability to be honest. You can’t say, ‘This just bored the hell out of me.’ So instead you say, desperately, ‘I think you should show instead of tell.’ Where’d  that come from? I mean, tell that to Jane Austen!”

Comment from Jan:

Philip Hensher was right that a creative writing workshop “can be wonderful, with the right group, with a proper level of trust; or it can be atrociously unhelpful.” Journalist Cheryl Reed got little help from students’ comments she received while getting an MFA. “Most contributors offered terrible and conflicting advice,” she said on her blog. Reed added that although she received many favorable comments on her fiction, the workshop process on the whole wasn’t helpful: “It was mean and mean-spirited.”

I had to submit my work to peers in my undergraduate journalism classes and found the process neutral, neither helpful nor harmful. Perhaps the experience was benign because I had a gifted professor or because the rules for news-writing are clearer than for fiction: Your story has an inverted-pyramid structure or it doesn’t. I’ve also led workshops in college journalism classes I’ve taught, and they had more flexibility than those Prose describes: My students could respond to comments. But I’ve used workshops sparingly for reasons implicit in Reed’s remarks: They can amount to — if not in the blind leading the blind — the nearsighted leading the nearsighted. Some creative writing programs may require workshops partly because, in writing classes that last for several hours, they give everyone a break from the lecture format. For that reason alone, some students and professors welcome them.

You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter, where she often tweets about writing, by clicking on the “Follow” button at right.

(c) 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

January 20, 2011

What Makes a Book Review Work? Quote of the Day

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Many well-written book reviews are unsatisfying because critics fail to describe and evaluate an author’s main ideas or themes. Longtime Library Journal editor Barbara Hoffert alluded to the problem at a recent National Book Critics Circle program, “Book Reviews, Revamped.” Hoffert said she often tells reviewers:

“I want to know what this book’s argument is, and does it make sense?”

July 28, 2010

Donald Margulies’s Play ‘Collected Stories’ – A Poet in His Youth, Again

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A Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright explores the relationship between a writing teacher and a student who forges her own career

Collected Stories: Revised Edition. By Donald Margulies. Dramatists Play Service, 68 pp., $8.95, paper.

By Janice Harayda

Who owns the story of an adult’s life? Donald Margulies explores the moral and psychological implications of the question in Collected Stories, which had a brief run on Broadway earlier this year. Margulies doesn’t parse legal issues in this play about a 55-year-old New York writing teacher, Ruth Steiner, and her evolving relationship with a young student, Lisa Morrison, who forges her own career.

Collected Stories instead follows the intersecting emotional arcs of a mentor and her protégée as the story builds toward an act the older woman sees as a betrayal. Lisa urges her teacher to talk about an affair she had years earlier with the poet Delmore Schwartz, then uses what she learns for her own purposes. Ruth sees her student’s appropriation as a form of theft and psychic annihilation. She tells Lisa: “You wanted to obliterate me.” Lisa insists she didn’t: “I wanted to honor you.”

Who is right? The play leans toward Ruth but has little new to say about the age-old dance of transference and countertransference between a mentor and protégée. As in his Pulitzer Prize–winning Dinner With Friends, Margulies paints his characters’ needs with a broad brush. But he’s a skilled craftsman: He seems to have removed every needless word with the literary equivalent of turpentine, and his play is well-paced and structured. And the question “Who owns the story of your life?” has gained provocative and slippery dimensions in the age of Facebook and text messages. High school and college students might have hours of lively arguments about this play even as their elders prefer to dust-off their Vintage paperback editions of Poets in Their Youth.

Best line: Ruth: “Are you going to survive this tutorial, or are you going to require oxygen?”

Worst line: Ruth on Delmore Schwartz: “He was only 44 but there was something ancient about him. He seemed to possess so much wisdom …”

You may also want to read: Jonathan Yardley’s review of Poets in Their Youth: A Memoir (Vintage, 1983), Eileen Simpson’s memoir of her husband, John Berryman, and his circle, including Delmore Schwartz.

Read a review of the 2010 Broadway production of Collected Stories in the Wall Street Journal.

You can order Collected Stories online though Dramatists Play Service.

You can also follow Jan Harayda on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

May 4, 2010

What Is the Role of the Unconscious in Writing? Quote of the Day / Stephen Spender

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Authors often speak of their work as largely a product of their unconscious mind. In interviews, for example, they often say things like, “I didn’t write that book – it wrote me.” The poet Stephen Spender came closer to the truth for most authors in “Warnings From the Grave,” an essay on Sylvia Plath pubished in The Art of Sylvia Plath: A Symposium (Indiana University Press, 1970), edited by Charles Newman. Spender’s observation applies to many kinds of writers although he was speaking of poets:

“Poetry is a balancing of unconscious and conscious forces in the mind of the poet, the source of poetry being the unconscious, the control being provided by the conscious.”

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