Review: The Hidden Machinery: Essays on Writing

Literature lovers looking for a better understanding of their favorite works as well as writers who are struggling to create good literature will find new insights in Hidden Machinery: Essays on Writing. Margot Livesey (Mercury) is an admired writing teacher and a graceful and perceptive writer, the author of eight novels. This collection offers her experienced opinions and insights on the mechanics of writing fiction, novels in particular. It is also a memoir of her development as a writer in the context of her life and relationships. She describes her early misunderstandings and errors in composing fiction, and how she has moved from unconscious to conscious choices of techniques.

Livesey discusses the pleasures and dangers of research, how suspense is created and sustained through a novel, how to construct and use memorable "round" and "flat" characters, and the use of dialogue vs. scenes. In one chapter, she considers the relationship between fiction and the real world, and the choices to be made between the extremes of neatly constructed fiction such as Pride and Prejudice, and what she calls "antifiction"--more chaotic and vague stories full of historical detail, such as Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. "As soon as we start to connect the lives of our characters with the real world, we are taking a step toward making our fiction sound like antifiction."

Much of her teaching is by example, using walk-through analysis of classic novels and stories such as Madame Bovary, Persuasion, A Passage to India and The Portrait of a Lady. She distills useful advice from authorities such as Aristotle, Francine Prose, E.M. Forster and offers "sixteen golden sovereigns" of advice that she has extracted from reading Shakespeare. Bad writing can also be educational in her experience, but the main thing is to read with careful attention to how an author succeeds and fails. "For the practicing artist, influence requires a more active engagement. We must work to be influenced." There are many good books on the art of writing, but even those who have a collection of favorites will appreciate these clear and thoughtful essays on writers and the architecture behind their art. --Sara Catterall

Shelf Talker: Admired writer and teacher Margot Livesey combines memoir, analysis of classic works and discussion of techniques in this useful and enjoyable essay collection.

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