Book Review: The Writing Class by Jincy Willett

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If ever there was a novel to break the “show, don’t tell” rule – willingly, completely, knowingly – this is it and this is the only novel that is likely to be able to get away with it. But getting away with it doesn’t automatically equal a great book. In this case, it equals a good one but not a great one.

Amy is a published author and academic who teaches a writing class at a local university. But her last book is a very long way behind her and the wannabee writers aren’t students, they are paying for an evening extension class. The participants include a doctor, a lawyer, a former child actress, a mildly infuriating feminist, a retired teacher and several others. Each week someone brings a piece of writing and the class spends time analysing it and provides written feedback to help the writer improve.

At first it’s like every other writing class Amy has ever taught. There are some good writers, there are some bad writers, there are some who aren’t writers at all and thought the class would be a good way to pick up women. But then one of the participants starts providing feedback that is anonymous and unnerving including cruelly parodying a poem, drawing crude images and using very bad language as well as crank calling Amy on the phone and whispering repeated phrases and sentences.

Amy decides to cancel the class and tells her students why but they like her and want to continue. They meet off campus instead and she’s concerned that they seem to be excited by the Sniper, as they’ve taken to calling him (or her, the infuriating feminist continually reminds them). But then Frank, one of the writing class participants, is found dead at the bottom of a cliff. Suddenly, it’s not so exciting anymore. The police think it was an accident so the writing class takes it upon itself to figure out who the killer is. The only thing they know for sure, though, is that it’s one of them.

The Writing Class is a great big inside joke for anyone who has ever tried to write or attended a writing class. It’s also like a how-manual woven into a novel. Snippets of the pieces of writing are included – a very bad attempt at a vampire tale, a revenge story full of corny dialogue, a fantastic how-I-ended-up-owning-a-spider in-class writing exercise, a poem about suicide and lots more – and considerable time is spent by the class discussing them as Amy educates her class and Jincy Willett educates the reader.

Consequently, the story itself is a very slow burn and I wondered how long anyone interested only in reading and not writing would persevere. Of course, as a writer myself, I can’t know that. I found Amy interesting enough, although perhaps a tad too much like me (she even mentions the one and only joke that I can remember and that cracks me up every time – Jesus on the cross telling Peter, “I can see your house from here”) because I’m not interesting enough to sustain an entire chapter, let alone an entire novel.

The other characters were a bit flat – there were a lot of them and I honestly can’t remember much about any of them even though I’ve just finished reading the book – and when the Sniper is eventually revealed, I thought, “Was I meant to be able to figure that out?” Because I didn’t – I couldn’t, I don’t think anyone could – and the motivation and execution of the Sniper’s efforts was strange. Inserted throughout the book are some of the Sniper’s writing efforts, including taunting Amy and describing getting revenge on literary journal editors who had refused to publish their work by anonymously sending jumbo paper clips, human hair and pulled teeth (given to them by a retiring dentist) in the mail.

But it’s very well written and I’ve certainly never read anything else like it, so it has some originality going for it. However, since Jincy Willett is also an author who teaches creative writing in California, just like Amy, I wondered how former students would feel about it, how much of them she had infused the book with. Inspiration is one thing but semi-autobiographies are another. And since Amy ends the book in the midst of writing the story of the story of the story (if you get what I mean), it ends up being very much like the following scene from the movie Adaptation, written by Charlie Kaufman. (Donald is his screenwriting twin brother in the movie, although fictitious in real life.)

Donald: Caroline has this great tattoo of a snake swallowing its tail and—
Charlie: Ourosbouros.
Donald: I don’t know what that means.
Charlie: The snake is called Ourosbouros.
Donald: I don’t think so. But, anyway, it’s cool for my killer to have this modus operandi. Because at the end when he forces the woman, who’s really him, to eat herself, he’s also eating himself to death.
Charlie: I’m insane. I’m Ourosbouros.
Donald: I don’t know what that word means.
Charlie: I’ve written myself into my screenplay. It’s eating itself. I’m eating myself.
Donald: Oh. That’s kinda weird, huh?
Charlie: It’s self-indulgent. It’s narcissistic. It’s solipsistic. It’s pathetic. I’m pathetic. I’m fat and pathetic.
Donald: I’m sure you had good reasons, Charles. You’re an artist.
Charlie: The reason is I’m too timid to speak to the woman who wrote the book. Because I’m pathetic. Because I have no idea how to write. Because I can’t make flowers fascinating. Because I suck.

Adaptation is a great, great movie about a writer and writing and The Writing Class has the same sensibility about it while being a little more mainstream friendly. The front cover proclaims it as The Writing Class: A Novel like it needed to be made clear. Maybe it should have been made clear to the author. Even though I don’t resent the time spent reading it, it should have focused a little less on being a how-to guide and a little more on being a great fictional plot. I’ll be very interested to see what non-writers have to say when I perform my post-book review ritual of reading other people’s thoughts on the same story.

3 stars

*First published on Goodreads 30 November 2016

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