Literary Cookbooks

Oh dear! I wish cookbooks on the art of writing a short story or novel were more like the culinary ones sitting on my kitchen fridge. I mean, listing the ingredients, giving the quantities, describing the creative process. But unlike these lovely food cookbooks, writing ‘cookbooks’ generally tell you how to check out your literary cake once it is already cooked. They advise you to edit the linguistic ingredients, to add icing or remove inedible bits and pieces. This editing generally starts with a discussion of the basic components: nouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, conjunctions and prepositions.

The ingredient that gets the most comment is the humble adjective. Most writing cookbooks tell you to pick up a blue pencil and delete as many of these as possible. What nonsense! The adjective is the main ingredient, the caviar and cream of the sentences we write. But it comes in various flavours.

Firstly, there are those adjectives that describe something purely physical, such as “the slowly rotting banana lay on the wooden table in the smoke-filled kitchen.” What a magnificent image! Here we have atmosphere, colour, the passage of time, the passivity of fruit, an awareness of the lack of smoke alarms and the potential of fire, all conveyed economically with a few descriptive adjectives. The adjectives ‘slowly’ and ‘rotting’ paint a picture for us: we can see the yellow banana as it becomes spotted with brown impedimenta; we experience banana aroma, modulating the smoke of the kitchen. Also, being told that the table is wooden, we are faced with a compelling enigma. What sort of wood? Tell us that the table is ash or mahogany, that the ash was imported from the dark primeval forests of Czechoslovakia by your Jewish grandmother when she immigrated to Australia back in the thirties, and the picture will be complete.

Then we have those adjectives that are more than simply descriptive. These express the opinion of the author on some aspect he or she is writing about, such as in the sentence “that stupid idiot at the checkout gave me the wrong change, so typical of the undereducated, moronic younger generation that we have to put up with today” or something similar. These expressive adjectives are in no way purely descriptive, but are evaluative and personal. They need not even be true, for they merely express the opinion of the writer, be that informed or ignorant. Such adjectives are the true painters of character, even the character of the writer herself, not the hero or heroine, and this is often of more interest than the characters in the story being told!

The third category of adjectives is the poetic adjective, the one that explodes with meaning in the attentive reader’s receptive mind. One finds such gems scattered about Keats’s Ode to a Nightingale: light-winged, deep-delved, purple-stained, spectre-thin, leaden-eyed. But these are really ‘nonce-words’, words made for a special occasion and out of place in a modern down-to-earth realistic novel or short story. The occasional expressive, poetical adjective can add spice to your story, just as ginger can add spice to a cake.

All adjectives modify nouns, as adverbs modify verbs, and this is where vocabulary comes in. Vocabulary provides the building blocks that underpin any solid story. But be careful to take into account your potential reader and his or her accessible vocabulary. The importance of word quality to style cannot be underestimated. When Thomas Love Peacock in Nightmare Abbey has Mr. Flosky tells Marionetta that the difference between ‘fancy’ and ‘imagine’ involves the notion of “hyperoxysophistical paradoxology” we are charmed by the musical rhythm of this combination, and smile as we reach for our dictionaries. This use of language both entertains the reader, and tells us something of the nature of Mr. Flosky’s interests and character.

According to “How to Write a Novel” manuals, one must be careful to maintain a constant tone in the narration. The constant buzz of the developing story must not under any circumstances be interrupted by a diversion, a change of tone, or a change of direction. Once again, this is pure nonsense. As any literate person knows and understands, variety and even vulgarity are the spice of life, and sudden shocks and changes of direction are the meat of any literature worthy of the name. Hasn’t Sterne’s Tristram Shandy stood the test of time, and isn’t that story the quintessence of diversions? Are we ever told when exactly Tristram was born? Or take the modern masterpieces of Joyce or Beckett, do they amble along like tired donkeys, or are they spiced with the most succulent patchwork of changes of tone and direction?

Then we have characterisation. According to an article in a recent copy of the London Review of Books, “Characterisation is the ordinary measure of a writer’s achievement,” and in Writing a Novel and Getting it Published, a handbook in the Teach Yourself Series, we read, “A good novelist is as least as much a psychologist as a wordsmith, for in the end, the depth and realness of your characters reflect your understanding of human beings.” This understanding of human beings is shown in the novel or short story by characterisation. But how do you depict a character? “Show, not tell” is the refrain that one hears in most literary cookbooks.

Again, what absolute nonsense! Great authors do exactly the opposite. For example, open a copy of Jane Austen’s Emma, and what do you find? The opening sentence reads “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.” Is that ‘showing’ or ‘telling’?

David Lodge in his Art of Fiction reminds us that not only is the reader being told in detail about the leading character in Austen’s novel, but the adjectives describing her are replete with suggestion and meaning. Pretty or beautiful girls are not usually described as ‘handsome’ unless they are modern business tree climbers; ‘clever’ suggests perhaps ‘too clever for her own good’; and everybody knows about the negative Biblical associations of the word ‘rich’, the moral dangers of excessive wealth. But of course, this ‘telling’ of the nature of Emma is going to be developed by later ‘showing’, a picture painted by the events of the novel as it progresses. So why not “Show, and tell’?

An important choice one has to make, the How to Write cookbooks tell us, is the person of the narrator. One has to decide whether to use the first person, e.g., “I entered the kitchen on tip-toes as the hall clock struck midnight” or third person, e.g., “He entered the kitchen on the tips of his toes, as the hall clock struck midnight.” The choice is yours, but there are implications. A first person narrator is often not to be trusted, as any reader of German novellen knows, and in any case, the first person narrator point of view is only that of that particular person. But first person is dramatic, especially in the present tense. I strongly recommend it. The more conventional and more boring arrangement is to place everything in the past, and tell the story in the third person. “Cinderella tried on the shoe, it did not fit. She was disappointed, etc., etc.” Such loose sentences are tiresome. But the third person narrator can be omniscient, a know-all, and this knowledge enables the writer to use many points of view. We can learn what Cinderella was thinking, and read the minds of her malevolent sisters.

Have you ever noticed that most prudent housewives keep recipes and hints from the pages of the Australian Women’s Weekly or Women’s Day in a recipe scrapbook? There’s a lesson there. As a writer-to-be you are well advised to keep a notebook where ideas and expressions from other people’s work can be written or pasted in. This is what is called a ‘commonplace book’. Franz Kafka kept a commonplace book and diary and in it you can see how he created his masterpieces. I myself use a fake-leather-covered yellow notebook which I purchased from a chain departmental store. The yellow cover not only reminds me of the romantic days of Aubrey Beardsley and Oscar Wilde, but also serves admirably to make it stand out clearly among the plethora of books on the kitchen table, where I write first drafts whilst eating breakfast.

Finally, some literary cookbooks with a technical emphasis tell us to be very careful with punctuation. This is very sensible advice. There can be hidden traps for young players wishing for international publication. Take, for example, a simple sentence you might place in a novel or short story that you have set in the Australian bush on the loving relationship of a mother with her children. Young Johnny has come home from school with his report book, but is soon pushed aside by his elder sister who exclaims “What’s for dinner, Mother?” Notice the comma after the word ‘dinner’. What if you are trying to publish this book in the highlands of New Guinea, and they do not know about the literary conventions of English? On reading it out aloud, they might get “What’s for dinner?”, “Mother?” and there could be much licking of lips. Check and double check your text for such potential traps.

Literary Cookbooks


Box Hill North, Australia

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Artist's Description

A little ironical essay on those literary cookbooks that teach you how to write the perfect novel.

Artwork Comments

  • Lawford
  • PhotoBloke
  • Susan Grissom
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