4.5 out of 5 stars
Cut to the Chase:
This book is full of well written prose that gives opinions and examples on a variety of things that go into “good writing:” everything from characterization and choice of first vs. third person narration to the placement of essayists in the literary hierarchy. The story also details the almost lifetime of friendship between Kidder and Todd in a very interesting, introspective way. I didn’t always agree with the “advice,” and found some of the example they chose to be somewhat contradictory to the points they were making, but still, it was well written, interesting, and kind of like a collapsed recommended-reading list (in that they were often quoting from other books, some of which I had never heard of, but now want to look up).
Though I read journals and magazines, essays and books, I suppose I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about how The Atlantic, and many of its authors and editors, came to be (in my mind, it was just always this ivory tower of sorts, and its writers the blessed knights somehow). It was interesting, therefore, to start off with how these two met — the story ideas, the revisions, the fact that Kidder was initially classified as the fellow who couldn’t write, but persisted and persisted until he was published.
And that, folks, is almost the best “advice” to come out of book: if you’re looking for more inspiration (with literary examples and some cute asides about personal journeys), then this is a great, enjoyable, read. If you’re looking for craft essentials and more how-to advice… I feel like it’s a little shakier. Though they clearly have opinions about what good prose is, and even opinions about how hard you should work to “hook” your readers (hint: don’t work too hard), not a lot of this advice is really unpackable. They’ll give you examples from Capote to Dickens, but they’re more explaining that “Call me Ishmael” is a beginning that draws you in, rather than advising you how to come up with a beginning that does the same… also, some of the examples they gave felt like it hurt, more than helped, their argument (I like Nabokov, usually, but felt like they quoted a passage from him that was particularly, almost needlessly, dense).
There are interesting discussions about a variety of craft elements, for example, the different types of narrators (and how, in nonfiction, you really can’t have an “unreliable narrator” unless you’re doing something somewhat more experimental, like Hunter S. Thompson and Ralph Steadman in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), and the idea that essayists are often treated as though they’re the bottom of the totem pole, since not everyone has written a novel or even a short story, but no one leaves high school without having written an essay!
Overall, I found it to be well written, and definitely worthwhile (if for nothing other than the book recommendations via the series of quotes, etc) That said, despite my enjoyment and thus high rating, I don’t know how much it lives up to its title by explaining the true art behind nonfiction.
Comparisons to Other Authors:
I aven’t read anything else by either of these two (though I really want to, now). The only thing I can think to compare it to is John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers, which I felt had a similar problem, in that it was well-written and interesting, but not necessarily the “advice” you would think it was, and more of a “let me show off my craft and what I know of the craft.” Still, both are very well written, and hold your attention, so it depends on if you’re expecting more of a how-to versus just clearly written, sometimes entertaining prose.