The following books are ones that I’ve consulted time and again for insights on prose writing; the focus is on fiction, but there’s plenty to gawk at for folks who write, full stop.
It may be hyperbolic to say that I feel despondent when I see Stephen King’s On Writing listed on yet another “Best Books About Writing” list somewhere, and yet the feeling that I do have is pretty damn close. I’ll give a nickel to anyone who can send me a published list of this ilk that doesn’t include any of the following: Bird by Bird, anything by Natalie Goldberg, On Writing, or anything by Julia Cameron. (Kidding about the nickels. I keep my coins close at hand.)
What irks me about such lists isn’t that they exist, and I don’t actually have anything against Bird by Bird — the only book on that list that I strongly disagree with is King’s* — but such lists tend to leave out so many truly astounding books about the craft. The following books are ones that I’ve consulted time and again for insights on prose writing; the focus is on fiction, but there’s plenty to gawk at for folks who write, full stop.
Note: The books that I’ve linked to are affiliate links.
Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction / Charles Baxter
Though this book is probably most read by fiction writers who’ve been at it for a while, getting a head start with Baxter in your back pocket isn’t a bad way to begin. The first time I read Burning Down the House, I must admit that my cheeks burned a bit — as a slightly intermediate novice, I was guilty of plenty of the things Baxter notes as exceedingly common in first books. A smart kick in the pants.
This slim volume is like that soothing friend who’s been where you’ve been and knows exactly where you’re at. The chapter on envy alone is worth the price of admission. You may, as I did, recognize yourself in several places; this isn’t a book about craft so much as it is about the writing life.
THE ART OF (series) / edited by Charles Baxter, written by various authors
I collect these small, dense books from Graywolf Press. The one I have at hand at the moment is The Art of Description: World into Word (Mark Doty). Doty is a poet, but his insight is worthwhile regardless of form. “It sounds like a simple thing, to say what you see. But try to find words for the shades of a mottled sassafras leaf, or the reflectivity of a bay on an August morning, or the very beginnings of desire stirring in the gaze of someone looking right into your eyes.”
Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose / Flannery O’Connor
Mystery and Manners is by no means a handbook. O’Connor, widely considered to be one of the greatest short story writers in the history of the English language, speaks with wisdom and clarity about what matters to her, and how such things have influenced her as an artist: peacocks, Catholicism, the South.
These are books that you are likely to have read, or at least to have heard of, but I enjoy them so much that I’m including them here: Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life (Dani Shapiro) is a recent release, and has a spot in the makeshift shelf on my desk; The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers (edited by Vendela Vida), which has some wonderful conversations in it; The Writing Life (Annie Dillard), which is low on pages, but packs plenty into her brief treatise on working as a writer (I used to collect, for no apparent reason, different editions of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, her Pulitzer-prizewinning book. Her prose reads like poetry).
*I’ve been asked, since publishing this, what I have against On Writing. I haven’t looked at that book in a long time, but I remember that he’s very adamant about writers only being writers if they sit down and write every day; I disagree with this. I’ve also had conversations with several well-established female writers who believe that this kind of dogmatic claim is one that male writers tend to make.