People who write tend to have a book or two they favor for advice. I got a lot out of Stephen King’s On Writing, Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, and Katharine Sands’s practical compilation Making the Perfect Pitch.
But three books not billed as literary advice have taught me a great deal as well: Vanity Fair by William Thackerey; Andre Bernard’s Rotten Rejections: The Letters that Publishers Wish They’d Never Sent; and All is Vanity by Christina Schwartz.
I couldn’t say why two of these books have “vanity” in their titles.
Rejections is an easy connection; when a “no thanks” letter arrives, it helps to remember that Seuss’s Lorax was refused 75 times, and that Animal Farm was considered a non-starter. It’s like getting a wee courage injection, taking Bernard’s book down and opening it at random to read the poisonous summations of works now considered classics. Most affirming.
The novel All is Vanity is hysterically funny, yet deals with a couple of major writing themes. The sometimes tragic consequences of mining others’ lives is explored, but what really resonates is Schwartz’s depiction of creative procrastination; three months after quitting her job, the protagonist has yet to start her novel, but she’s painted the living room, sorted the linens, and rearranged the kitchen cabinets. The day she spends reading the fine print on her credit card statements lives in infamy among writing groups.
I once loaned the book to a friend who said she “just couldn’t get started” on her novel. She brought it back a week later, saying, “I don’t know whether to thank you, or hit you over the head with this.”
Vanity Fair has been recommended by writing teachers almost since it appeared in print. If you want to learn how to craft excellent characters, read Thackerey’s “novel without a hero.” Despite Woody Allen’s infamous assertion, “The heart wants what it wants,” Thackerey knew that hearts and minds are complex mechanisms seeking what they’ve been trained to from a lifetime of experience. Desires may be embarrassing, even deadly, but they are never simple. Neither are Thackeray’s characters, each one a completely drawn person, no matter how brief his or her appearance. Amelia’s loutish brother is a case in point.
A word to the wise about Vanity Fair: if you decide to shortcut, get the BBC adaptation rather than the Reese Witherspoon film. Trust me on this one.
(Don’t forget that St. Martin’s Press is closing Caption Contest IV on August 12. Scroll down to July 29th’s entry for the photo. Add your entry to those found in Comments, and have fun!)