One is bound to feel duped if, having bought a book called How to Write Like Tolstoy, one encounters within the first six pages the question “Can one, in fact, teach people to write?” This dodge is a common rhetorical gambit of people being paid to teach people to write—the implication being, “Don’t expect a miracle.” Richard Cohen, an author, professor and veteran editor of such luminaries as Kingsley Amis and John le Carré, cites Kurt Vonnegut as having been skeptical of writing instruction. Vonnegut, on the faculty of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, “held that one could not make writers, and likened himself to a golf pro who could, at best, take a few shots off someone’s game.” So one can teach people to write—just not like Count Lev.
Notwithstanding its title, which is clearly tongue-in-cheek, Mr. Cohen’s book has admirably modest aims. It seeks to provide sound advice to aspiring writers and to illuminate the ways in which the finest novelists have addressed fiction’s creative and technical challenges. It begins with “Grab, Invite, Beguile: Beginnings,” ends with “The Sense of an Ending,” and, in between, discourses upon character, point of view, dialogue, plot and rhythm. There are also, less predictably, chapters on plagiarism and the difficulties and rewards of writing about sex. All of this amounts to something more substantial than a mere handbook. It is a paean to the creative process.
The book’s weakness, that it is at times accessible to a fault, can also be counted among its strengths. Serious readers may chafe at how often Mr. Cohen illustrates his points with all-too-familiar works and passages. In his “Beginnings” chapter, for instance, he quotes the opening paragraphs of The Old Man and the Sea and The Catcher in the Rye; Salinger reappears later, in a two-page section on “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” Mr. Cohen includes such inescapable matter as the concluding lines of The Great Gatsby, the apocryphal tale of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road “scroll,” and an explanation of Gordon Lish’s role in creating Raymond Carver’s work as we know it.
Serious readers are aware of this stuff. So are many less-than-serious ones. Yet it helps make How to Write Like Tolstoy feel like a book for everyone, not just MFA students with a draft or two under their belts. It belongs in every high-school classroom. Not only does it cover the basic mechanics of storytelling in a genial, conversational way, but it also makes the literary sphere and literary life seem wilder and more enticing than any high-school English curriculum is allowed to do. The by turns amusing, groan-making and meditative chapter on writing about sex—which provides a survey of literary erotica from “The Song of Songs” and Fanny Hill to Philip Roth, John Updike and Tom Wolfe—goes a long way in that direction, too.
In any case, the sort of quotations one might find on a bookstore tote bag sit amid a greater quantity of more sophisticated or esoteric material, culled from literary biographies, writers’ and editors’ correspondence, and Mr. Cohen’s own editorial career. An inquiry into the nature of plot takes as its jumping-off point his work on editing Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots (2004), a two-decade-plus project that Mr. Cohen describes, in an allusion to Middlemarch, as a “modern equivalent of Casaubon’s Key to All Mythologies.” This section is a reminder of how deeply the author and his lodestars have engaged with the issues under discussion.
Those lodestars are far too numerous to list, but as a consequence How to Write Like Tolstoy is worth purchasing for its implied Suggested Further Reading alone. Part of the value of a college education is that it alerts the autodidact to his embarrassing blind spots. Mr. Cohen’s book could serve as a decent substitute. It names dozens if not hundreds of works, as old as the Gilgamesh epic and as of the moment as the levee-breaking tides of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s prose. It also draws on significant works of literary criticism and instruction, ranging from the popular (Stephen King’s On Writing, James Wood’s How Fiction Works) to the classic (E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, F. L. Lucas’s Style, Henry James’s The Art of Fiction) to the lesser-known (Georges Polti’s Les Trente-Six Situations Dramatiques).
Mr. Cohen’s chapter on plagiarism is, sadly, an especially welcome one, given how common literary theft has become in high schools and on college campuses. Yet one wonders whether it might be misinterpreted by unsubtle or unscrupulous minds as a warrant to steal. He quotes Bill Bryson: “Shakespeare was a wonderful teller of stories so long as someone else had told them first.” He tells us that Laurence Sterne plagiarized Robert Burton, Francis Bacon and Rabelais when writing Tristram Shandy. While this discussion is fascinating, there is a bit too much of this “good writers borrow, great writers steal” (T. S. Eliot) sort of thing, and it is hardly relevant to the type of plagiarism that tends to occur in the age of Google and Wikipedia.
The highest compliment one can pay How to Write Like Tolstoy is that it provokes an overwhelming urge to read and write, to be in dialogue or even doomed competition with the greatest creative minds. Encouraging this impulse is a teacher’s real job. The Irish writer Brendan Behan, Mr. Cohen tells us, once disappointed a standing-room-only crowd by thundering, “Go on back home and frickin’ write” and then making his exit. This is a cop-out. One cannot improve as a writer without practice, but seldom does one submit to that discipline without first having been taught to love it. That Mr. Cohen is an editor, that his love of literature comes in large part from awe in the presence of better writers than he, is no small matter. His love is infectious, and regardless of how well he ends up teaching us to write, that is miracle enough.