Jack Matthews is a distinguished 86 year old fiction writer. Recently he published an ebook called A Worker’s Writebook. I helped him do the formatting and design for it.
Between August 1 and September 4, 2011, this ebook will be a free download. See the ebook description page for more details about how to download it.
Below is the preface which I wrote for the ebook.
Jack Matthews has not only published more than 15 books of fiction, he taught classes in fiction writing to students at Ohio University for over four decades. This book consists of his teachings, insights, ramblings and ruminations about the art of fiction.
Many books have been written about the craft of fiction writing; how is this one different?
First, a Worker’s Writebook: How Language Makes Stories consists of essays and dialogue (called interludes). These interludes punch holes in the rules and pronouncements made in the essays; they also help the book avoid seeming too dogmatic. The two voices in the interludes are not exactly "characters" but the author and a contrarian voice within the author. The comparison to Platonic dialogues is apt; Matthews received his undergraduate degree in classical Greek literature and has always found echoes of the classical age in contemporary art and life. Still, the "poetics" of Writebook is grounded less in Aristotle than Aristophanes.
Writebook touches upon some practical aspects of writing fiction (such as naming characters and writing speech cues). But Writebook focuses on helping the writer write more boldly and with more attention to the linguistic vehicles of thought. For Matthews, most stories fail through under-invention, not because the rules of narrative have been disregarded.
Chapter 2 (Taxonomies) and 3 (Structural Matters) cover various paradigms for plot and character development. These are worthy subjects and Matthews has interesting things to say (especially when he tries to analyze his story Funeral Plots with these same paradigms). At the same time Matthews recognizes that there is no magic paradigm or archetype capable of explaining what makes all stories successful – these are just guides. At some point you just have to trust writerly intuition. Writebook helps the potential storyteller to cultivate this intuition and be flexible enough to bend rules when necessary. Matthews writes, "Anything can be done if it’s done in the right way: with style, panache and cunning."
Many writing books include a chapter or two listing literary cliches to avoid. For the most part, Writebook doesn’t do that. Instead it goes deeper and analyzes why some metaphors succeed and others do not. The funny Parable of the Indifferent Ear provides a good case study about how linguistic inventiveness doesn’t always translate into effective writing.
Literary insights from Writebook can be applied to drama, novels and poetry; but they are especially applicable to smaller forms like the short story (though Matthews’ claim that a short story of more than 10,000 words rarely succeeds is sure to be controversial). Writebook’s musings on the novel are still interesting (Matthews has written several novels, including Sassafras, a philosophical-satirical work that is every bit as expansive as Dickens or Balzac). But if you are seeking a guide specifically about novel writing, you might check out Jane Smiley’s 13 Ways of Looking at a Novel, Milan Kundera’s Art of the Novel or even (!) Stephen King’s On Writing.
Similarly, although Writebook includes a few writing exercises – Matthews calls them gimmicks – there are probably better books for that (with Josip Novakovich’s Writing Fiction Step by Step being a notable example).
Writebook introduces lots of new ideas and terminology: the non-sequential time opening, the Swamps of Antecedence, pointedness (which, as I understand it, is how stories gain enough momentum to escape the gravitational pull of the author), linguistic vehicles (the actual words which transport the thought) and why flat characters aren’t always bad. Also, the technique of overcoming writer’s block by trying deliberately to write something bad or meaningless actually works (I’ve tried it).
Matthews wrote Writebook in the mid 1990s (and distributed it to his creative writing students throughout the years). Since then, Matthews has retired and kept busy with various writing projects (described in greater detail in his 2009 interview in Chapter 7). At 85 years old, Jack Matthews is still writing fiction and teaching occasional writing classes. For more information about the life and writings of Jack Matthews, see www.ghostlypopulations.com
I almost forgot; Writebook is wickedly funny. I won’t spoil the jokes; suffice to say that one of his former students said Matthews was "so damn witty" in the classroom that he reminded her of Groucho Marx. Writebook has serious and even lofty aims. But this is fun reading. Matthew’s style is playful and pedantic; Matthews enjoys inventing characters on the fly to illustrate his points and adding qualities to them until you begin to wonder if Writebook is going to veer into becoming a novel. After I finished this book, I still remember snarling black-eyed Greta Hutchins; she is still snarling, and I am wondering what she’s going to try next.
Robert Nagle, Personville Press, April 2011.
P.S. Jack Matthews’ new novel Gamber’s Nephew was published in July 2011 by Estruscan Press. The widely-praised 1967 novel Hanger Stout, Awake! will be republished as an ebook by Personville Press in Fall, 2011. If you wish to be informed about future publications by Jack Matthews, go to ghostlypopulations.com and sign up for the mailing list.