The Art of X-Ray Reading by Roy Peter Clark
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
If one asks a group of people whether a story worked or not, one is likely to hear widespread agreement, but if one asks them why it worked [or didn’t,] one is likely to get a hodgepodge of murky conclusions. The average person will struggle to put together a coherent explanation for failed stories, an explanation which may or may not be grounded in paydirt. That’s because whether writing works or not is a matter of emotional resonance, and what delivers that emotional experience is almost as hidden as the pipes and wires in the walls that deliver water and electricity. Clark’s purpose with this book is to show the reader some of the characteristics they can read for, features which may not be readily apparent when one is lost in a good book, but which make the difference between a masterpiece and a ho-hum work.
While I referred to “story” a lot in the preceding paragraph, it’s worth noting that Clark’s book does cover the gambit of creative writing activities – including a few poets, essayists, non-fiction authors, and repeated references to one very famous playwright. That said, the bulk of the works under discussion are fiction — be it a novel, short story, epic poem, or play.
The book consists of twenty-five chapters, and the subtitle is a little bit deceptive because not all of the chapters take a single work as a focal point. Each of the chapters has a core concept to convey, using one or more authors (and one or more of each writer’s works) to do so. Some of these lessons are at the level of language, such as Nabokov’s playfully poetic alliteration and assonance, Hemingway’s sparse prose, or Toni Morrison’s effective use of repetition. Other chapters explore how intrigue can be set up and sustained: such as in Shirley Jackson’s foreshadowing of the twist in her story “The Lottery,” or the way “Sir Gawain and the Green Night” turns a non-event into unexpected chills, or how Harper Lee uses the slowed experience of time to build tension. Still other chapters present techniques such as placing texts within the text as done in “A Visit from the Goon Squad,” zooming in or out with perspective as is done in Homer’s “Odyssey,” or Shakespeare’s rejection of conventions in his sonnets. Some chapters investigate how a tone is established such as in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s magical realism, and one other focuses on intertextuality – i.e. the borrowing of ideas from past masters in a non-plagiaristic sort of way.
The authors and works selected are popular and will generally be a least familiar to avid readers of English language literature, and most readers will have read at least a few of the works under consideration. A few of my personal favorites were explored including Shakespeare, Yeats, and Hemingway, and I suspect that will be true of most readers. There was only one author of whom I had no knowledge, M.F.K. Fisher, a writer who is well-known to mid-twentieth century cookbook fans, but who is a little obscure today. Having said that, I did come away with an interest in reading the book under discussion – i.e. “How to Cook a Wolf.”
While this book is marketed towards writers, I think any serious reader would find it an interesting and worthwhile read. If you want a better understanding of what succeeds in the world of writing, you should take a look at this book.
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