Book Review: How to Write Like Tolstoy: A Journey Into the Minds of Our Greatest Writers by Richard Cohen

The title of this book, although catchy, is misleading.  Personally, I wouldn’t want to write like Tolstoy anyway.  I am perfectly content to write like John Walters.  Anyway, the author makes no attempt to teach writing or techniques of writing.  Instead, he catalogs how various famous writers dealt with various aspects of writing.  The entire book is taken up with examples of writers’ attitudes towards beginnings and endings of novels, characters, plagiarism, points of view, dialogue, irony, story, prose rhythm, writing about sex, and rewriting.  Again I emphasize: not to teach writing, but rather to entertain.  And the book is entertaining; I’ll give it that, though some sections work far better than others.

The section on storytelling works well, because the author gets down into detail about what constitutes story and the basic plots in fiction.  Other interesting sections include the looks at story beginnings, plagiarism, and writing about sex – although the author spends much more time decrying bad examples than applauding good examples.  It is also fascinating to read what various writers think about revising.  As Cohen emphasizes, there are as many opinions about these various aspects of the writer’s craft as there are writers.  The short chapter on dialogue didn’t do much for me, probably because I recently read Robert McKee’s comprehensive book on dialogue.  Some of the other more esoteric sections, such as those on rhythm and irony in novels, didn’t really have much to say, probably because the subjects are difficult to pin down.

My biggest objection to the material in this book is how the author limits the examples he uses.  He leans heavily on classic writers such as Tolstoy, Austin, Lawrence, Joyce, Hemingway, and a few others.  Some contemporary writers are mentioned in passing, but not many.  Of popular genre writers, Cohen cites only Stephen King and Ray Bradbury.  In the section on sex, he dismisses the contribution of Henry Miller to sexuality in novel writing with a footnote, which to me is an injustice.  If the author had been more open to the wonderful diversity found in fiction, the book would have been much more comprehensive and enjoyable.

Still, it is what it is, and as I said, it is readable and enjoyable.  Too bad about that title though.  Some would-be writers might pick up this book thinking they are getting a how-to volume on the making of epic novels, whereas nothing could be further from the truth.  If this book is instructional to writers at all, it is to show that there is no one way to write, and no definitive rules on what constitutes correctness, let alone excellence, in the various mechanisms that make up a piece of writing.  Perhaps that was the author’s objective all along: to demonstrate the idiosyncrasies of writers, to highlight their individuality and unique ways of approaching their work.  That’s what it did for me, anyway, besides offering a good laugh here and there.  It reinforced the conviction I already hold that once you learn the basic tools of the trade, there is no correct or incorrect way to write.  Writers are individuals, each with his or her unique method of creation.  Writing is a voyage of discovery, as Henry Miller said in his excellent essay “Reflections on Writing.”  It is akin to taking to the open road that Whitman wrote about.  Every writer’s journey is a singular one.  That is the glory of it.

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