There’s been a lot of noise on social during the last few days about the legitimacy of certain kinds of book review and indeed certain kinds of book reviewer. I don’t normally blog about these kinds of topics so excuse the self-indulgence, but I really wish people would Get. Over. Themselves.
With an early exception, I’ve featured book reviews on this site since about 2015 (my first being that for Ragnar Jónasson’s Snow Blind). I am not under the impression that people are hanging around waiting for my comments, but I do kinda hope that the reviews add to the conversation about a particular book. Whether the reviews do this or not, the act of writing them has certainly made me a better reader. Everyone who runs a book blog (even if I am not sure that Cafe thinking is, really, a book blog) has their own reasons for doing so: I love following some book bloggers and I find that the work of others leaves me unmoved. Bloggers and other reviewers are not untouchable: who comments on the commenters? It’s quite reasonable to question the content and quality of blogs. But I don’t get to call into question the legitimacy of those who blog, and neither do you.
Is book reviewing, is comment, is whimsy, writing? I am not always sure. People do get proper sniffy about what constitutes real writing. I am not John Updike. But I have made a living for over 25 years based largely on typing words on a keyboard. The first department plan I wrote, back in 1998, didn’t win any prizes. But it did get me the extra resources I was seeking. Business writing is, er, writing, just as much as a literary novel. Even the lowest form of the trade, content farming, probably counts. The problem is the wrapping that we have around the word ‘writing’ itself. The wrapping arises because society teaches us that words have power, and that there is something special in producing them or arranging them in a particular way. There’s so much bad writing around (including in this post, probably) that it’s good that some kind of commitment to quality is seen to be a good thing. It goes wrong when that’s an excuse to define who is in and who is out.
Which brings me to Stephanie Vanderslice’s book, The Geek’s Guide to the Writing Life. There is plenty of advice available for would-be writers out there, by Vanderslice’s book is different. It’s a relatively short book and it’s conversational in tone but there is plenty of lived experience running through its pages. I get the feeling that Vanderslice’s definition of writing (if it appears in the book, I missed it) would not include comment and business but is really about the creation of all-new work. But we get to disagree with that because the main and rather brilliant thing that Vanderslice does is to point out that you don’t need to ask for permission to be a writer, nor is permission yours to give to others. She’s really passionate about this and talks about the various acts of gatekeeping that seek to discourage the budding penster. So go and write what you want to write.
Some of Vanderslice’s advice is supposedly about writing but could really apply to any kind of balanced life. You need to think about how the parts of your life fit together. If you have a partner, it would be good if they were supportive and not, you know, a jerk. Get some exercise. Compromise on some things and not others (it’s up to you which).
But the majority of the book is writing-specific. Vanderslice points out that everyone wants a writer to have written, but but not necessarily to write. Although no one can stop someone from calling themself a writer, a good writer will be open to learning, suggestion, criticism and growth. There is a lot of work and you might not succeed. Keep notes be organised, form communities, write, write, write.
Vanderslice is a writing educator and there is plenty of coverage of routes into writing. There is an excellent list of resources at the end of the book.
I liked The Geek’s Guide. It takes power from the would-be gatekeepers and it gives it to the would-be writer. But it also points out that with that power comes responsibility, to take the trade seriously and to understand its pitfalls. If you’re not sure that you have that power, a couple of hours spent with this book will help you decide.