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BOOK REVIEW

Writing life’s truths

Essays from a fiction master

Author Alice McDermott.
Author Alice McDermott.Jamie Schoenberger

In “Faith and Literature,” an essay from her first nonfiction collection “What About the Baby?,” the award-winning novelist Alice McDermott explains the origins of her fictional milieu: “I write about a culture I know fairly well in order to resist the siren song of research.” The culture she’s referring to is that of Irish Catholics, mostly in Brooklyn or Long Island, at various points in the 20th century. McDermott, as one would deduce, was born in Brooklyn and educated in Long Island, the daughter of Irish Catholic parents — “a cradle Catholic,” as she describes herself. She regularly explores the way the past haunts the present, community mythology, alcoholism, and the life-altering effects of grief.

This doesn’t mean, however, that McDermott’s eight novels are rehashes of the others. “That Night” (1987) explores a single night of violence in 1960s Long Island. “Charming Billy” (1998) begins at the titular character’s funeral, with friends and family discussing what caused the severe alcoholism that killed him. Her most recent novel, “The Ninth Hour” (2017) also starts with the death of a husband (this time in a suicidal fire), but here the narrative drama comes not from what lead to it but what happens after, to his widow and his unborn daughter. Though McDermott’s novels are wide in scope and often take place over numerous generations, they are rarely longer than 250 pages. She is as economical as she is ambitious.

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All of which is to say that she absolutely possesses the necessary pedigree to publish a collection of essays on the art of fiction. “What About the Baby?” is the result of not only her 40-year career as a novelist but also her veteran experience as a writing teacher. The insights here are hard won. For instance, she opens with an essay titled “What I Expect,” in which she enumerates the qualities she looks for in fiction. McDermott wants narrators — hers and yours — “to stand naked, talking into the dark, so that the words they choose are neither self-conscious or self-serving nor — worse yet — author-conscious and author-serving.” She demands that fiction contend with “the pain and sweetness of life” and “be truer than life.” These are lofty standards, but McDermott’s oeuvre justifies such requirements. If she doesn’t always succeed, it is apparent that she doggedly strives to meet these expectations.

As a useful guide for novice fiction writers and even writing and literature educators, “What About the Baby?” isn’t comprehensive by any stretch, but it isn’t intended to be. It collects pieces written throughout McDermott’s career, and as such has a slightly loose quality overall, but although she’s a better novelist than essayist, her essays can sometimes pack a punch. The best one here, the title essay, explores her complex reaction to repeated instances of brutality against young women in recent fiction. She’s offended by the violence and eventually “resolved to take a hiatus from reading rape scenes or descriptions of the bodies of dead women and girls, no matter how brilliant the author or apparently essential the plot twist.” But just as she’s made this decision, she writes, “I began to reprimand myself for my intolerance, for my prudishness, my creaking feminism, my Catholic League of Decency censorship, my motherly high dudgeon.” She considers another curiosity in tandem: many of her women students write in the voices of male characters. When she asked a class of hers about this, the response from the students was, “Everyone’s afraid of writing chick lit.” Noting that aspiring authors of course take note of the peers’ work, she wonders, “what happens when young writers, checking out what’s new, who’s making it, stumble upon dead girls wrapped in plastic, hanging from trees, overpowered, mutilated, strangled?” McDermott continuously oscillates between her visceral reaction to these depictions and her wide-lensed certainty that “‘I find the material offensive’ is not … an intelligent response to a work of art.”

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The conclusion she draws is a fascinating one: no matter how a young novelist may feel about these scenes — ethically, politically, philosophically — one must never, she advises, “let your distaste” or “your outrage … guide your hand, shape your story, [or] infuse your characters.” For her part, despite her anger and offense, McDermott “never wrote about the phenomenon,” at least not in her fiction, which, she says, “is the only writing I do that matters.” Instead, she “saved it for an essay.”

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Essays, then, for McDermott, are a lesser form built around direct engagement. “A work of nonfiction,” for her, is “where the story is already formed, has already happened, needs only to be reported.” Such a definition undersells the difficulty of wrangling a true narrative into a compelling story, but it does explain why McDermott isn’t quite as at home in the essay form as in the novel. She block-quotes way too often and sometimes too liberally (she plunks three-page excerpts from Nabokov and Mark Helprin, for instance), which probably stems just as much from her pedagogical experience. Some of the essays don’t completely cohere, but even those ones at least contain insights into the writing life. McDermott is too smart, too astute, too experienced to compose anything that wholly fails to illuminate. Fans of hers, as well as writers and serious readers, will find plenty to appreciate.

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WHAT ABOUT THE BABY? Some Thoughts on the Art of Fiction

By Alice McDermott

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 256 pages, $27

Jonathan Russell Clark is the author of “An Oasis of Horror in a Desert of Boredom” and the forthcoming “Skateboard.” His writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the L.A. Times, and the San Francisco Chronicle.