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The Classic Fiction Formula

Roy Peter Clark has made a whole career out of his guides to better writing. But does his fiction manual actually work?

Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images

“No one is born,” writes poetry critic Helen Vendler, “understanding string quartets or reading Latin or creating poems; without the scholar and his libraries, there would be no perpetuation and transmission of culture.” I assume (or at least hope) that Vendler’s “scholar” is a large enough umbrella term to include the role of educator, since information doesn’t do much without some form of teacher to organize it, interpret it, present it, and demonstrate how to incorporate it into future efforts. Even for those who believe strictly in preternatural talent, there still must be a process of how one becomes what one is.

The premise of Roy Peter Clark’s The Art of X-Ray Reading: How the Secrets of 25 Great Works of Literature Will Improve Your Writing is that anyone pursuing a creative field should study its history—both narrative and aesthetic—in order to establish a foundation on which to build a unique voice. This is the premise of nearly all books in the how-to-become-a-better-writer genre. I know this because I was once a wannabe fiction writer who was scared as hell that I didn’t have the magical element required to tell compelling stories. As I write this, I can spot on my shelves the following books: On Writing, Zen in the Art of Writing, The Art of Fiction, The Art of the Novel, Aspects of the Novel, 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, This Year You Write Your Novel, Reading Like a Writer, and How Fiction Works. And I’ve read every damn one of them. 

Though some were revelatory—especially the first, by Stephen King, and the last, by James Wood—most of them failed to improve my writing, though they sure as hell improved my reading, and some left me discouraged and overwhelmed. Novelists and critics wrote these books, practitioners of the art, who, it mostly turns out, are terrifically adept at elucidating narrative strategies but less skilled at demonstrating how to put those techniques into practice. And often you’re left not with literary ability but a sense of awe at just how great the great writers are.

Roy Peter Clark, unlike most of the authors above, has made a living solely by producing these kinds of instructive texts. Clark began his career as a reporter for the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times) before joining, in 1979, the Poynter Institute, a non-profit school dedicated to journalism (and founded, not coincidentally, by Nielson Poynter, owner and chairman of the St. Petersburg Times). Clark has taught writing in every iteration one could think of, and he channels this vast experience into edifying guides like Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer (2006), The Glamour of Grammar: A Guide to the Magic and Mystery of Practical English (2010), Help! For Writers: 210 Solutions to the Problems Every Writer Faces (2011), and his latest, The Art of X-Ray Reading, all published by Little, Brown. While most of his previous books tended to focus on professional and journalistic writing, The Art of X-Ray Reading is pretty exclusively aimed at fiction writers. Can Clark with his long career in instruction rather than critique produce a better and more helpful book than James Wood? Will his vocation as an educator—as opposed to a practicing novelist—help or hinder his project? Can he—or anyone else—actually make my writing better?

In his introduction, Clark defines his concept of “X-ray reading” as the method used by writers. “This special vision,” he writes, “allows them to see beneath the surface of the text. There, invisible to the rest of us, they observe the machinery of making meaning.” From these observations comes a kind of “reverse engineering” that “are then stored in a writer’s tool shed in boxes with names like grammar, syntax, punctuation, spelling, semantics, etymology, poetics, and that big box—rhetoric.” This is an assuredly reasonable premise; it is not “watch how the greats do it,” but rather, “learn how the greats see it.” Clark, it seems, may lend us his boat, rod, and tackle, but he will not feed us any fish.

Almost immediately, though, Clark forgets this conceit and proceeds to do all the “X-ray reading” for us, hoping that we’ll learn by example. He begins with The Great Gatsby and its famous closing passage—well-trod territory, to be sure, but functional enough in its ubiquity (as well as more evidence that Clark’s book is aimed at students). Clark notes the symbolism of the Long Island ferryboat (the river Styx, “journey into the next world,” etc.), the “symbolic geography” of East and West Egg, elucidates the recurrence of the color green, briefly mentions T.S. Eliot’s “objective correlative,” uses S.I. Hayakawa’s “ladder of abstraction” to examine the scope of language in the passage, riffs on the important distinction between “orgastic” and “orgiastic,” and even discusses the structural architecture of the novel as a whole.

As practical instruction this is all a bit much; it’s the kind of close reading (which is really all “X-ray reading” is) that Cleanth Brooks and I. A. Richards might have been proud of, but not the kind that successfully educates the unfamiliar and especially not budding practitioners of the form. More importantly, though, is what happens to The Great Gatsby through such a lens: It becomes impossibly perfect, every word a perfectly chiseled rock, every theme an elegant braid, and every element a decisive choice made by a calculating mind. Though Fitzgerald of course considered these things and strove for high effect, how could such an analysis not lead to unnecessarily rigorous self-scrutiny, and, after inevitably failing to match “greatness,” to self-doubt and stunted productivity, if not worse? How would any amateur prose stack up against such intricate beauty and precarious balance? Does every part of a novel, the young and intimidated writer may ask, have to be so… so exact? It’s a bit like teaching someone to drive by showing them the inner-workings of a V8 engine. Some depth of knowledge can wait.

Better, it seems to me, to focus on larger concepts like point-of-view, free indirect discourse, and mimesis, as readers often detect these things even if they can’t articulate their functions or their import. Moreover, when a writer lacks a fundamental understanding of these concepts, the stories they produce will almost inevitably carry the stink of immaturity. Abrupt and clumsy shifts in narrative P.O.V., a haziness as to whom the central character is, prose that moves from omniscient third to close second to some hybrid of the two—these are the obstacles a novice must overcome before they can even begin to worry about incorporating thematic connections like Fitzgerald.

But when Clark hits upon general concepts, he treats them like speed bumps—unavoidable but of negligible impact. While discussing Flaubert’s prose style in Madame Bovary, Clark quotes from Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (1946):

We hear the writer speak; but he expresses no opinion and makes no comment. His role is limited to selecting the events and translating them into language; and this is done in the conviction that every event, if one is able to express it purely and completely, interprets itself and the persons involved in it far better and more completely than any opinion or judgment appended to it could do. Upon this conviction—that is, upon a profound faith in the truth of language responsibly, candidly, and carefully employed—Flaubert’s artistic practice rests.

As noble and romantic a way to describe Flaubert’s technique as this is, the truth is far less grand but more commendable. It is not Flaubert’s “faith” in language but his skill with it. Auerbach fails to fully understand the deliberate nature of free indirect discourse, an approach Flaubert innovated in Madame Bovary. Rather than merely “selecting the events and translating them into language,” Flaubert, instead, was exploiting an affect of third-person narration that transfers the feelings and opinions inherent in the prose onto the character from whose perspective the prose is revolved.

A quick way to show this: If the beginning of a story read, “JoAnna looked around her apartment. What a shithole,” how would you interpret that second sentence? Clearly it’s JoAnna’s opinion of her own place, not the opinion of some God-like storyteller. Most readers, no matter what their education, will pick up on this. They’ll understand it implicitly, and continue to view all the language through the lens of JoAnna, but if a writer doesn’t understand why and how this all works explicitly, breaks in POV will accumulate and the prose will become messy, confusing, and clunky. Clark, however, doesn’t clarify the nuances, nor does he mention at all that what Auerbach’s describing actually has a name and has been studied with intensity by numerous literary theorists. For Clark, such terms and distinctions are stuffy and pedantic, not in keeping with his straightforward voice.

This is not to discount the intelligence and perceptiveness of Clark’s analyses. His readings are smart and succinct, if a little light, and the “Writing Lessons” that conclude each chapter are wise, and could arguably inspire someone to give a few of the exercises a try, or at the very least instill some desire to explore the ideas further. Especially interesting are Clark’s sections on (relatively) less covered works like M. F. K. Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf (1946), John Hersey’s Hiroshima (1946), or Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us (1950), unlikely nonfiction classics that nonetheless provide unique and vital lessons for fiction writers.

Note, though, the publication years. Most of Clark’s examples represent a conventional canon: Shakespeare, Nabokov, Joyce, Plath, O’Connor, Flaubert, Melville, and so on. The only recent texts here are Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Good Squad (2010), Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit (2001), and Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch (2013), but the rest are the usual suspects. A more relevant collection of texts might have better assisted in appealing to (and, as a result, reaching) young writers trying to wrestle with such a daunting and compelling demon. Even James Wood—so rarely accused of being hip—spends considerable pages on Philip Roth, David Foster Wallace, Ricky Moody, Ian McEwan, and Zadie Smith, and his book only promises to explain how fiction works, whereas Clark’s flat-out states that it will (for real, it’s underlined on the cover) improve your writing. The use of canonical authors, here and elsewhere, is less about their skillfulness and more about the authority their names bring. After all, most people would prefer to think they’re learning from Dante and Fitzgerald and Woolf, and not from a selection of contemporary writers they might never have heard of.

In truth, the education of an artist is a mess of clumsy attempts, prolonged ignorance, rare persistence, and intuited lessons, but mostly it’s a lot of reading and writing, with passionate abandon and often without grand intention. Most quit. Some never develop past the ersatz and the derivative. A few do, but somehow still aren’t very good. This makes it virtually impossible to prescribe this or that technique, or to merely show how this or that writer made their novel work, because young writers who stick around will, for better or worse, develop those skills on their own. Clark’s intent is admirable, his skills as a critic considerable, and the book he’s produced is not without its merits. Although Clark believes, in narrative terms, in the importance of “showing,” he fails to see how young writers—about to step into a vast landscape with centuries of history—would be enormously grateful to simply be told.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled John Hersey’s last name.