Writing the Breakout Novel delivers advice to the would-be novelist in a friendly format that is easy to understand, even when it delivers blows to the pride of the writer who can’t imagine why his/her work isn’t already of breakout quality. I especially appreciated the unassuming tone and the wide variety of references to narratively successful works. Some of the complaints Maas makes about the poor authors whose work he rejects could have been stated with better grace, perhaps. He also seems to imply that simply by writing with great skill there is no possible way your work could fail commercially. Putting those issues aside, which you can do easily as long as you love writing more than you love your ego, I’d call this a solid addition to one’s reference desk.
“Today, though perhaps not in Shakespeare’s day, the resolution never to behave like Macbeth does not inevitably carry any clear implication of what to do instead.” John Gardner, On Moral Fiction, p. 107.
Reading the first two chapters of On Moral Fiction filled me with such hope. After all, I had just finished with The Art of Fiction and found it to be self-congratulatory bombast. My hopes were not high on opening On Moral Fiction. But, soft! At last, here was serious writing on the purpose of art, on the high aims a writer can take to improve the world by offering his (almost always “his,” but what of that?) gifts through story. Here was genuine consideration of the idea that we might–GASP!–learn how to be more human through fiction, both reading and writing the stuff. I was ready to set aside my anger and look anew at Gardner on fiction. Alas, what followed after that was more of what was to be found in _The Art of Fiction_: pompous put-downs and inflated verbiage. As Gardner noted in the quote with which I opened this review, there’s value to be had in the excoriation of those artists who provide a list of “what not to do.” There is much more value however, in shining the light on examples of what TO do. Macbeth fell short of that. So does Gardner in On Moral Fiction.