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Reviewed by Karis Shearer
A recent issue of Atlantic Monthly featured Richard Bausch’s essay “How to Write in 700 Easy Lessons,” an ironically titled tirade against guides to writing and their impact on students of creative writing, in which Bausch complained that “a good book is not something you can put together like a model airplane. It does not lend itself to that kind of instruction” (30). In other words, a good book should be created through innate talent and attention to craft.
According to that premise, derek beaulieu’s new volume is not a good book.
Constructed like a model airplane, beaulieu’s equally ironically titled book How to Write is actually a work of conceptual fiction produced from a very specific set of “instructions,” most of which can be found at the back of the book. 1 Conceptual writing, as Kenneth Goldsmith puts it in “Paragraphs on Conceptual Writing,” “means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair” (98); the creativity lies in inventing the concept itself, not in the actual execution of the work. By thematizing the very idea of “instruction” in such pieces as “Cross it over it,” beaulieu’s slim volume challenges received ideas about genius and creativity: “Cross it over it,” is a “series of pornographic instructions pertaining to both tying a tie and composing poetry” (67) that implicitly suggests poetic composition is a masturbatory process.
Pillaging directly from other sources, How to Write takes as its subjects both the production and reception of literature. “How to Edit: A,” for example, “is an exhaustive record of every incidence of the word ‘edit’ in the over 1,100 different English-language texts stored at Project Gutenberg (www.gutenberg.org) which are indexed as starting with the letter A.” “I Don’t Read” – the only section of the book for which a description of the method of composition is absent – is presumably a catalogue of what people claim they “don’t read”: “I don’t read printed text in Braille font. I don’t read yellow journals, not even as I wait in the checkout line. […] 5 Reasons I Don’t Read Your Blog and How to Change That” (26).
One of the best pieces in this collection, however, is about the interpretation of literature: “Nothing Odd Can Last” takes thirty-six “alphabetized questions from Coles Notes-style websites on Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.” Taken out of their original context and juxtaposed with one another, these questions’ humanist and author-centred assumptions become all the more explicit and even absurd owing to the fact that the pronouns have no clear antecedents: “Could it have been omitted? Does the author guide his pen or does his pen guide him?” (11) and “Is there any importance to this, or is it just the author’s bawdiness? Is there sufficient justification for such passages in the book? Or should the reader say to heck with it?” (13). Absurd as these questions may appear in this new context, they remain legitimate within a particular paradigm of reading – a paradigm perpetuated by Coles Notes and reinforced by online study sources – making them well worth interrogating.
According to Goldsmith, “Conceptual writing is good only when the idea is good” (101). In the case of How to Write, then, the idea is “good” in that it has generated poems that thematically provide useful critiques of traditional approaches to reading and writing, while formally raising questions about authorship and contemporary writing technologies.
1 The constraint used to produce “I Don’t Read” is, unfortunately, missing from the notes.
This review first appeared in Matrix Magazine (#88 Winter, 2011).