Characteristic twists in the plot

7th June 1996 at 01:00
Andrew Stibbs finds out how to make a Bloom's breakfast out of a Dickens dinner. ENGLISH AS A CREATIVE ART: LITERARY CONCEPTS LINKED TO CREATIVE WRITING By Linden Peach and Angela Barton David Fulton Pounds 12.99

This admirable book is based on undergraduate courses on creative writing, but bravely includes a section of short biographies and bibliographies of major literary theorists. It is informed by the theoretical approach to literature still distrusted in many schools, but it is accessible and purposeful and offers many ideas to A-level teachers and teachers of both creative writing and literature at key stages 3 and 4.

The book should enhance the practice of creative writing (mostly of prose fiction) with some theoretical understanding, and enrich literary response with experiential knowledge. The systematic, interactive approach provides a justification for teaching literary reading and creative writing, instead of relying on mere practice and intermittent inspiration. Explicitly knowing how it's done helps you to do it. The converse also applies.

The authors address individual readers directly and didactically, with chapter introductions, bullet-points, guided further reading and preparatory, research and critical activities. They recommend a demanding regime ("organise your life round your writing") and many trips to the library and give realistic, practical advice on reading and making time and space to write which is too often ignored by more expressivist advocates of creativity.

Exercises teach the way words connote in literature or link the formulae of narratives to high and low-brow genres. There is an enjoyable section on reading through and writing as an unreliable narrator. When writing meets literary theory, rather late in an overlong first chapter, we are asked to rewrite a Dickens dinner in the style of Joyce's Bloom's breakfast.

The book recognises that literary characters are to be read and written as plot-functions, rather than as pen-portraits of real people. It explains how characters are created (and limited) by the speeches, actions or significant names ascribed to them and through techniques of "showing" and "telling". Recognising that students read popular as well as classic literature, the book quotes the advice of writers like Toni Morrison (on writer's block) and Jeffrey Archer (on research).

Such a comprehensive and ambitious book inevitably invites a few quibbles. Some instructions are too stark, some critical questions are too leading, and some chapters overstuffed. The Russian formalist, Vladimir Propp, is summarised to the point of misrepresentation, and there is nothing on intertextuality. These criticisms are worth making only because the book deserves wide use and further editions. A course which prefers practical advice to inborn assumptions is more likely to make writers than one which celebrates the lonely wild untutored genius supposedly lurking within.

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