Saturday, September 10, 2005

An interesting interview

Robert Birnbaum interviews Frederick Busch at Thought-provoking conversation, but I find myself sometimes dissenting, as to this bit of the conversation:

RB: Is it too much it expect that having written close to thirty books, well regarded for the most part, that when your book comes out that you are automatically review-proof and will sell respectably?

FB: That's Stephen King. That's John Irving. They are review-proof. I don't think most of us are. Stephen King has the exact ability that Charles Dickens had. To get to his readers in spite of or despite anything the reviews say. Do you think Stephen King fans care? I had the audacity to review Stephen King's book on how to write.
You have to read history. You have to have a sense of history. In a way, I see my fiction as having moved in that direction--and the characters as dealing simultaneously with their personal history and with the present in which they are trying to make their way.

RB: You had written one of those.

FB: I did an anthology, Letters to a Fiction Writer, for Norton, and that's a number of essays by practicing writers. I said some snappy stuff about Stephen King, and I was cunningly disapproving of certain parts of him. And you know that book sold in numbers that are astonishing. He was just finishing off a contract.

RB: That doesn't seem to be a book that his core fans would be interested in.

FB: It's by him. He can reach anybody, his readers, and they are legion because he has many, many movies.

This is a mix of what seems to me fair and not fair. King and Dickens, fair; but the disparaging remarks about King's book on writing, perhaps not fair? I haven't read Letters to a Fiction Writer or the comments about King in its preface (one five-star Amazon reviewer offers the equivocal praise "The best book on writing fiction since Anne LaMott's Bird by Bird"). (Here's the full text of Busch's NYT review of King's book.) I don't think Busch means to be super-dismissive, but it comes off that way in the transcribed conversation, and this is what doesn't seem fair. I found King's On Writing absolutely mesmerizing. It's a memoir and an advice manual at the same time, and I read it in a single sitting: it's a great book, by any standard. It's as readable and interesting as his very best novels--I think his core fans would all like it very much (I mean, they seem to have, based on large number of Amazon reviews with many stars, but it is REALLY a good book by my standards) and I find it hard to believe it was written out of purely cynical motives. The movie line here is cheap, especially since (am I wrong about this? too lazy to look up, anyway) King has disavowed some of the higher-profile adaptations. I don't think Busch means to sound so elitist, but this comes off as one of those unfortunate highbrow-lowbrow confrontations that makes me cringe--I don't see the need for it at all.


  1. what other books on writing have you read? Any recommends?

  2. I don't read that many of them--King's one is great, definitely read it if you haven't; the LaMott one is generally well-regarded but not to my taste. I think usually reading regular old books, so to speak, is more useful--I highly recommend the "Best American Essays" collections (the last one was especially good) if you're interested in working on your first-person voice for essays as opposed to fiction, or reading classic essayists like Orwell and James Baldwin or whichever ones are your favorites. One day I am going to write a book on writing myself....

  3. I have read the king book and agree. I'm actually writing a supernatural thriller right now, so I'm on the hunt for advice. Thanks for the suggestions :)

  4. I absolutely LOVE supernatural thrillers... good luck with it.

  5. well, I doubt this is up to your exacting standards, but you can talk a look at the progress of my experiment thus far: