Last semester I used Brian Shawver’s The Language of Fiction as the craft book backbone for the fiction unit of an introductory multi-genre creative writing course. Selecting it was a bit of a gamble (I’ll be honest: I’d only read a few chapters), though I had a good feeling. This good feeling was confirmed midway through our first in-class discussion of the book, which was lively, and in its warm wake, this feeling turned into a thought: “Why haven’t I always used this book?”
The answer is that it came out only last year. I’m writing this review because teaching this book left me wishing it’d come out sooner.
The Language of Fiction is a fiction-writer’s handbook that focuses exclusively on the mechanics and conventions of language, the nuts-and-bolts considerations that are so familiar to experienced writers that they’re sometimes passed over in the classroom. In the introduction, Shawver explains that this book
is meant to serve as a resource, because there aren’t many other places for you to turn if you want to examine the relationship between language usage and fiction. Most creative writing books assert the importance of mastering prose mechanics, but not many give adequate advice about how to do it . . . this is understandable—writers of fiction manuals only have a few hundred pages, and instructors have only sixteen weeks, to discuss the innumerable elements of their subject. Still, a destructive message is being sent: ‘Grammar, style, and convention are important, but not so important that we’re going to talk about them.’ (xii)
He cites himself as a victim of this “destructive message”:
I recall with a shudder how much of my time (and the time of many slush-pile readers) I wasted under the delusion that I could get by on raw talent and whatever usage rules had osmosed their way into me. This book argues that mastering language on a fundamental level is an essential part of becoming a literary artist, as necessary to focus on as character development or plot construction. (xi)
Chapter by chapter, this argument is strengthened. Readers will encounter practical considerations on the usage of the past and present tense, diverse methods for rendering dialogue and thought, and sound advice on pronouns, adverbs, diction, fragments, comma splices, run-ons, semicolons, dashes, parentheses, commas, exclamation points, and italics. Creative writing instructors will find the well-argued points on common patterns of error especially helpful (tense shifting, over-varied dialogue tags, overuse of adverbs, clichés, etc.)
Shawver is consistently clear, thorough, and humorous, the humor rooted in humble self-effacement and in poking fun at his subject’s driest patches. He comes across as friendly and passionate. As one of my students noted, he does the best that anyone can possibly do with material that beginning writers might find dull. As another student said, “He sounds like a professor you’d want to take a class with.”
In the back are exercises directly linked to chapters. These exercises were so useful that I was saddened to discover that some chapters didn’t have them. Perhaps they might be included in a second edition?
It’s worth noting that Shawver, like all writers, holds convictions that underpin his aesthetic opinions. Throughout The Language of Fiction he makes these convictions clear, as he does while considering diction:
As we’ve discussed elsewhere, anything that makes a reader focus too much on language can be a distraction. We’ve mostly talked about that fact in terms of how errors distract readers, but it also holds true in regard to lyrical language. If you write a phrase of such poetical grace that the reader stops thinking about the character and starts thinking about your way with onomatopoeia, the effect is the same as if you’d spelled something wrong: distraction . . . one might argue that the writer’s main job is to investigate matters of character, action, and theme, not to exploit the lyrical possibilities of language. If you want to do that, perhaps you should write poetry. (112)
While I disagree strongly with this position on fiction’s relationship to lyric language (as well as with the book’s representation of Postmodernism), I am grateful for Shawver’s willingness to take a clearly-articulated stand. These stands provide terrific springboards for important class discussions. And I hasten to add that Shawver himself is no extremist: “In this, and in other opinions, my sensibility leans closer to the traditionalists, so please consider that if your tastes run to the experimental or Postmodern” (163).
There is so much to appreciate about The Language of Fiction: its energy is invigorating, its scope impressive, important, and humbling. On our last day of discussion more than one of my students pointed out how they found the book’s main argument to be not only accessible, but stimulating; it got them thinking about how the many conventions of language could be productively suspended, altered, or exploded. This semester, I’m teaching this book again—I already can’t wait to have the discussions that will be indebted to it.