Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction, by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd

You don't have to be a writer to appreciate this book by the very fine nonfiction writer Tracy Kidder (his The Soul of a New Machine and House are among my all-time favorite nonfiction books) and his editor Richard Todd. Readers will find much that is informative in Kidder and Todd's discussion of how they work together and their explication of some of the challenges faced by nonfiction writers.

They open with a discussion of "Beginnings"--how a writer introduces their work to the reader. The following  is, I think, indicative of their approach (and one of the reasons why Kidder's books are so good): "To write is to talk to strangers. You want them to trust you. You might well begin by trusting them--by imagining for the reader an intelligence at least equal to the intelligence you imagine for yourself."  That, I think, is more important than whether the first sentence is memorable.

They go on to talk about "Narratives" (discovering the story, deciding what point of view fits the story, developing the characters, and deciding on how to put the book together structurally). Two chapters deal with special forms of nonfiction, the memoir (helping me understand the contemporary compulsion to write memoirs) and essays. Another chapter is titled "Beyond Accuracy"; in this chapter they examine facts, truth, and the relationship between the two. They also consider the relationship between writer and subject and the role of the writer's philosophy in shaping his/her work. Of course, a book on writing would not be complete without attention to "The Problem of Style."

Entitled "Art and Commerce" and "Being Edited and Editing," the final two chapters deal with the process of being published. The latter includes a section by Kidder on "Being Edited" and one by Todd on "Editing," each of which reveals a great deal about their relationship, the way they work together, and their strengths as individuals. One of Todd's observations about Kidder is, I think, the key to what makes Kidder's work so singular: ". . . Kidder had an interest quite unusual for a writer, an interest in virtue. It's an immeasurably harder subject than vice. A bright thread of goodness runs through his subsequent books." Clearly, though, Todd's role in Kidder's books has been considerable, and their relationship and work together can stand as a difficult-to-achieve but possible model for editors and writers, whatever their genre.

I highly recommend this book for writers and readers.

Favorite passages:
Writers are told that they must "grab" or "hook" or "capture" the reader. But think about these metaphors. Their theme is violence and compulsion. They suggest the relationship you might want to have with a criminal, not a reader.

The deepest pleasure of a piece of writing may lie in a graceful narrative turn, an intuition about human behavior that finds exact expression, the spirit of generosity that lies behind the work. A good word for these things, when they occur, is "art." . . .In happy moments one realizes that the best work is done when one's eye is simply on the work, not on its consequences, or on oneself. . . . these things that carry us beyond utility, that lie outside economic logic, are what make civilization worth inhabiting, and that their absence--which is frequent--can make the world a dispiriting place.

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