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Archive for March 25th, 2013

There are two things that most people  feel they can do.  Some  people know  they can open a restaurant ; others are certain they can  write a book. The reality of course is far different . Neither cooking nor writing is as easy as it seems . That is why so many restaurants are opened with such great hopes and go bust within months. It is why that blockbuster novel never gets written.

Good Prose by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd is a difficult book to classify . It is a collaboration between Tracy Kidder, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, and Richard Todd , his long-time editor. Todd was Kidder’s first editor when the latter started writing for the Atlantic Monthly and he has continued to work with Kidder over a period of forty years .Together , Kidder and Todd explore some of the problems of writing non-fiction – narratives , essays , and memoirs – and offer sound advice on the art and craft of writing and editing . One of them, usually Kidder, will start a chapter and the other will then chime in  with his thoughts and with examples , often from their joint experiences .

Good Prose is not a guide to style like the E.B. White classic , The Elements of Style . It does not offer grammatical rules or lists of do’s and don’ts. It pre-supposes that the reader has at least a nodding acquaintance with White’s book or with Fowler’s Modern English Usage. What it does offer is sound advice about some of the nuances of the craft of writing, and the format of the book makes it a delight to read.

Kidder (and Todd ) are not afraid to voice contrary opinions . For instance , early in the book , Kidder tells us he does not agree with the idea that writers should ” hook” or ” grab” or ” capture” the reader with an arresting beginning. This is the way , he phrases it in his elegant p[rose ” Beginnings are an exercise in limits . You can’t make the reader love you in the first sentence or paragraph , but you can lose the reader right away. You don’t expect the doctor to cure you at once, but the doctor can surely alienate you at once , with brusqueness or bravado or indifference or confusion . There is a lot to be said for the quiet beginning “.

The book  introduced me to complexities that I’d never considered. For instance , all of us are familiar with the “point of view” , first person or third person . Here, I read for the  first time about intricacies such as the ” restricted ( or limited) third person” ,  the ” minor first person ” and the ” unreliable narrator” point of view. There is no reason for  readers to feel daunted ; each of these terms is lucidly explained with well-chosen examples. Indeed , one of the charms of the book is the excerpts that are used to illustrate a concept. As a result of reading this book , I’ve come across  three other authors to sample in the future.

Though Kidder is a Pulitzer Prize winning author , I’d never before read any of his articles or books . As I read Good Prose , I found myself stopping to admire and savor the quality of the writing . Kidder, and Todd , have a smooth , limpid style which conveys what they want to say lucidly , yet efficiently . Every word , every phrase is well-chosen and one sentence flows into the next. They make it look so easy and yet it most assuredly is not . For instance, this is what Kidder & Todd  have to say about describing a character. ” … one sure way to lose a reader is trying to get down everything you know about a person. What the imaginative reader wants is telling details…. Whether it is brief or lengthy , mere description won’t vivify a statue . What we want are essences, woven into a story in moments large and small. A character has a wart. You could describe it in detail , but the reader would probably see it more clearly if you described not the wart but how the character covers it when he is nervous .

All of the book is worth reading but there were some parts that I found less compelling than others. One such is the chapter on Art and Commerce , which weighs in upon the relationship between writers and publishers . Writers may find it useful but , for me , it was not very interesting . This is not to say that Good Prose is meant to be read only by writers . On the contrary , it can be read with profit by anyone who loves good writing : writers of all kinds ,of course, but also  anyone else  interested in the craft of writing .

Reading this book will enable the reader to better understand the craft of writing, and the effort that goes into the writing of a book. The American author , Katherine Boo, spent almost four years in a Bombay slum called Annawadi before she wrote “Behind the Beautiful Forevers“. I used to wonder why it took so long for a writer to finish a book ; not any longer. I’ve also come to realize that I’ve been unfairly prejudiced against modern authors . Good writing is not to be found only in old classics ; it exists  everywhere , even in contemporary works .  One may admire a Model T or a Rolls Royce Silver Shadow but , in today’s world , the Toyota Camry is more relevant and it is what one buys .

Good Prose is definitely a worthwhile read . In fact , I’d venture that it is to be savored a little at a time, read and re-read with pleasure.

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