Of mice and writing advice
Tibor Fischer reviews Consider This by Chuck Palahniuk
“The publishing industry is on life support … Piracy has destroyed all the profits. Readers have all moved on to watching films and playing computer games.” Right at the beginning of Consider This, the gathered wisdom and advice on writing fiction and the writer’s life from novelist Chuck Palahniuk, he questions whether there’s a need for another donation to these topics.
A writer who has sold millions of books has considerable authority. However I doubt if Palahniuk would deny that his success is only partly down to his mastery of narration. To underscore his doubts about the viability of the fiction trade, his prominence is more to do with the Hollywooding of his first novel and Brad Pitt uttering the meme-creating line: “The first rule of Fight Club is, you don’t talk about Fight Club.”
Consider This is an appealing combo of memoir and a creative writing textbook. Novelists are notorious fibbers (after all, that’s their calling) and, while I’ve only had the briefest of dealings with Palahniuk, if he told me my name was Tibor Fischer, I’d feel obliged to check.
Martin Amis did a splendid job of relating the lunacy of the coast-to-coast US book tour in The Information, but it’s game, set and match to Palahniuk, who now owns the book tour, whether as a performer (he holds the record for audience members fainting) or raconteur. I’ve seen him live, so I can vouch for the wild theatrics.
I don’t know if he’s making it up, bullying reality or if these events happened as described, but I can’t imagine anyone topping his tale of white mice in a bookshop in El Cajón (I won’t attempt a précis, but I warn you, it’s typical Palahniuk: definitely not for the squeamish).
Consider This is also a generous acknowledgement of the many people who gave him guidance and encouragement. Although much of his writing deals with the extremes of human nature (he was asked to leave his first writers’ workshop when others found his submissions disturbing), there’s a curiously old-fashioned American warmth and optimism lurking in Palahniuk.
After a degree in journalism, he spent a decade working on a truck assembly line while he got going as a novelist. Palahniuk is a fervent believer in the fiction workshop and that other treasured American value, hard work. Unlike most of his successful contemporaries who have qualifications from Iowa or Columbia, Palahniuk is proud of his “kitchen-table MFA”, obtained from a workshop located in a dangerously run-down house.
The counsel Palahniuk offers on writing is mostly what you’ll find in the many textbooks on creative writing. Keep it tight, like Hemingway. Work hard. Read your work aloud to detect awkwardness or jumble. Read books (it’s staggering how many students on creative writing courses resent reading anything). Some of Palahniuk’s injunctions, his aversion to dialogue or the use of the pronoun “I” for instance, I and others wouldn’t agree with, but these are all matters that aspiring writers need to weigh up.
His championing of Joy Williams’s maxim “You don’t write to make friends” is something I’d strongly challenge. You do write to make friends: your readers. The problem is you don’t know who will be your friend or how many of them there will be. I assume what Palahniuk and Williams are getting at is the old adage, “You can’t please everybody, so you might as well please yourself.” No writer can be sure what will be successful and no one has ever written a book that has earned universal approval, so you might as well write the book that you’d like to read.
I’d also dispute Palahniuk’s claim that your translators “will adore you for using concrete verbs”. I’ve always found it surprising, but all the translators I know welcome, indeed, relish a challenge. A sentence like “the cat sat on the mat” may easily pay the bills, but it doesn’t get you street cred in the rendering game.
Perhaps Palahniuk’s most important observation is this: “If you’re dedicated to becoming an author, nothing I can say here will stop you. But if you’re not, nothing I can say will make you one.” That’s the one thing no textbook or course can give the forming writer: the bloody-mindedness.
For the recreational reader, the reflections on how to write might be a little too much, but there’s no doubt that Consider This will feature heavily in the reading lists of creative writing courses. One of the best and most entertaining books on the subject, and almost worth buying just for the story of the evening in El Cajón.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5Subscribe