I’m a sucker for writers writing about writing. It doesn’t matter if the author’s specialty is romance or high art; I’m curious to know word goals, techniques, how they met their agent, where they write. It’s doubly rewarding, though, when the prose itself is helpful and skillfully rendered, as in The World Split Open: Great Authors on How and Why We Write. In celebration of the thirty-year anniversary of Portland’s Literary Arts, Tin House Books has put together this collection to honor the nonprofit literary center’s storied lecture series. It collects speeches given by ten well-known authors on literature and craft, with warm words of introduction from Jon Raymond. Though I preferred the speeches that felt playful and biographical, as opposed to theory-heavy, the quality level is uniformly high. Dare I suggest that the unpublished majority find something vaguely aspirational in the very act of reading these essays? It felt like research, the fun kind; you’re combining trade tips and techniques with reading, which I imagine is the favorite activity of most writers.
By dint of alphabetical order, Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is first on the docket. It’s a good thing: her 2012 speech “305 Marguerite Cartwright Avenue” sets a lighthearted but lively tone for the proceedings. In biographical anecdotes rife with sharp-eyed detail, she talks about the home she grew up in and how much it inspired her. She reveals that a previous occupant of this same building was Things Fall Apart author Chinua Achebe, “the writer whose work is most important to me.” It’s a coincidence that tinges the rest of her piece with a sense of wonder and fortuity. You can almost hear her smile as you read. E. L. Doctorow continues with a speech a few chapters later that touches on similar themes of childhood wonder, specifically on those special books we find when we’re young that inform the rest of our lives. Russell Banks’s “No, But I Saw the Movie” is as wry and compassionate an essay as you might expect from the author of Affliction, The Sweet Hereafter, and fifteen other books of fiction that have yet to be turned into Hollywood features.
A few of these gamboling speeches touch upon subjects that will be very familiar to unpublished writers. Before the fellowships and National Book Awards, Wallace Stegner was one of the aspirational scribblers desperate to soak up tricks of the trade through various writing manuals and lectures. Edward P. Jones admits that his historical The Known World took so long from conception to publication because he had no desire to do extensive research. He put it off for nearly a decade and then decided to write without it. Knowing now that his debut novel—about a slave in antebellum Virginia—won the Pulitzer and was praised for its authenticity makes this admission all the more slyly playful.
The expert curation means the pieces speak to and inform one another. In “Morality and Truth in Literature,” Robert Stone starts by brusquely deconstructing a 1987 essay William Gass published in Harper’s that Stone believes “resolves itself solipsistically.” And though Gass isn’t present to respond, Stone and some of the more scrupulous authors (looking at you, Marilynne Robinson!) bring a spikiness to their talks that lends the collection necessary ballast.
Jeanette Winterson’s essay “What Is Art For?” contains a response in kind to those reluctant to engage with the Bachs, Handels, and Caravaggios of the past because of those artists’ religious tendencies. “We don’t read Henry James because American society is still like his books—we read his books because they contain some truths about us that don’t date. One of the things that art teaches us is to look past what’s period into what’s permanent.” In that spirit, The World Split Open gives these authors and their lectures a richly-deserved permanence, earned in part by the timelessness of the knowledge contained therein.
Publisher: Tin House Books
Pub date: November 11, 2014
Reviewed by Andrew Wetzel