Sunday, September 10, 2017

Review of 'Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction' by Benjamin Percy

There’s a new volume to add to the first shelf of books on the craft of writing. Benjamin Percy’s Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction is worthy to stand alongside such classics as Stephen King’s On Writing and Ursula K. LeGuinn’s Steering the Craft; books that not only offer invaluable advice, but ultimately expand the mind, inspiring us to question our most deeply-entrenched assumptions about literature—what it is, what it isn’t, what’s good, what’s bad—our prejudices about process—what works, what doesn’t—all the creative-writing-course clichés and stultifying conventional wisdom that narrows our outlook and limits our potential even as it smothers the creative spark we hope to nurture.

What’s the difference between ‘literary’ and ‘genre’ fiction, and are the two categories mutually exclusive?  The worst of genre fiction according to Percy “features formulaic plots, pedestrian language, paper-thin characters, gender and ethnic stereotypes and a general lack of diversity…” Literary fiction at its worst “features a pile of pretty sentences that add up to nothing happening…” A fairly grim, if acutely accurate, assessment; there seems precious little hope or redemption on either path, and even less possibility of reconciliation. “But why not flip the equation?” Percy asks. “Toss out the worst of genre and literary fiction—and merge the best…”  This is the extraordinary, some might say counterintuitive, premise of Percy’s argument, what makes ‘Thrill Me’ not only unique but indispensable. “If I’m going to align with anyone,” Percy declares, “it’s with … [those authors] who make an effort to be both a writer *and* a storyteller, someone who puts their muscle into artful technique and compulsive readability.”

And Percy shows us precisely what he means, offering generous examples of exceptionally well-written and  excitingly-told stories ranging across the literary/genre spectrum from Cormac McCarthy, Shirley Jackson, and Tim O’Brien to Michael Chabon, Ursula K. LeGuinn, and George R.R. Martin, not ignoring the rich vein of contemporary film and novelistic television. In each chapter, these examples are used to illustrate solutions to the problems every storyteller must face at one time or another; creating a sense of urgency in a narrative, finding the language appropriate to stage an effective set piece, dealing with issues arising from the portrayal of violence, employing setting and detail to “make the extraordinary ordinary’, designing suspense, knowing when to incorporate backstory (or not), the use of artful repetition…and so, so much more.

As in King’s On Writing, autobiography is employed as a vehicle for insight, a framework for instruction, the writer’s personal experience illuminating broader points about process in an engaging narrative that reads like the best coming-of-age fiction.  As a boy, the author relates, “I had too much empathy; it was a superpower (as a budding writer) and a disability (as a functional human being).” But Percy is wise enough to eschew the one-size-fits-all approach to creativity, the arrogant assumption that the experience of one individual somehow translates into universal truth.

Nor is Percy afraid to gore the sacred cows of contemporary fiction, fearless—and trenchantly precise—in his criticisms of semi-canonized writers like Bret Easton Ellis, Chuck Palahniuk and Michael Chabon, yet also lavish in his praise of those same authors where praise is due.

Percy draws strong parallels between music and writing, citing Aaron Copland’s description of the listening experience (on the sensual, expressive, and purely musical or cerebral levels) and showing how the same principles can apply to a reader’s enjoyment of fiction. Like LeGuinn in Steering the Craft, Percy explains how types of punctuation may be equated to musical rests of varying lengths. He invites us to appreciate the rhythmic richness of language, the visceral effects of well-chosen words, and the natural sense of momentum in a well-crafted phrase: “Tone refers not only to voice, but to music, the foot-tapping rhythm of the words. Dialogue is typically staccato [fast-paced, marked] while narrative is typically legate [smoothly flowing at a more leisurely pace]...”

Chock-a-block with eye-opening insight and practical advice conveyed in a fresh, down-to-earth style, Thrill Me is a must-read for all aspiring writers of dramatic fiction and the next best thing to a refresher course for more experienced authors. Enthusiastically recommended!  

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