George V. Higgins’s On Writing

Unlike Stegner’s, Higgins’s On Writing is unexpected, full of convoluted sentences (the kind lawyers reputedly cast) and five dollar vocabulary. Higgins values readers, but they are a dime a dozen, and critics, penny each, and, as it turns out, editors are the true friends of Eddie Coyle.

Higgins emphasizes repeatedly what he considers his most sage advice for writers: “…read good prose aloud” (p. 8), and, to stick the point in your gut, inserts samples of some of his favorite writers, in some cases entire stories, and asks you to read them aloud. So you get to read, interspersed throughout the chapters, the prose of Dickens, Hemingway, Gay Talese, William Manchester, Irwin Shaw, John O’Hara, James Thurber. Then Higgins explains how their writing works, from a street level viewpoint, and that’s the value in this book. 

Not a bad idea, the inserts; takes the attention off of Higgins for a spell. Higgins opens his book calling Edmund Wilson, the august critic of most of the 20th Century (see his Twenties; Thirties; Forties; Fifties; and Sixties), a professional torturer (p. 1). Speaking of torture, try this Higgins sentence on for fit: “Conformably to that presumption, this manual includes numerous selections by writers whose work I consider exemplary” (p. 9).

Like Stegner, and others, Higgins thinks “Writing is hard work” (p. 6). In part, perhaps, that’s because you may “Never tell your reader what your story is about” (p. 82).

George V. Higgins’s On Writing is worth reading, for its prose personality, and for how he shows how writing works. 

Higgins, G. V. (1990). On writing: Advice for those who write to publish (or would like to). New York: Henry Holt.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. I love Higgins’ work. Will be reading this one at some point soon.

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    1. Joe Linker says:

      Keith, You have to read this Higgins, very interesting, very different, and very practical, useful. Thinking of the wit in your posts, I think you will like the Higgins, for sure.

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  2. Try the new Higgins bio — George V. Higgins: The Life and Writings by E Ford, McFarland Press 2014

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    1. Joe Linker says:

      Yes, looked up the new bio at McFarland and Amazon etc. A wealth of citations (some of which can be viewed in Google Books). Access to original letters and interviews. Looks like a major accomplishment and contribution. Will likely get e-version – still thinking about that. Thank you for stopping by. Good luck.

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