Book Review: The Writing Class

By John McCrystal

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NZ writer Stephanie Johnson. Photo / Supplied
NZ writer Stephanie Johnson. Photo / Supplied

The Writing Class by Stephanie Johnson
(Vintage $37.99)

People write - or want to write - for many reasons. For some, it is a compulsion, an itch that must be scratched. For others, it has more to do with the narcissistic conviction that the world wants to know what they're thinking and feeling.

Still others don't necessarily want to write: they want to be writers, to wear the glow they perceive surrounding literary celebrities. And some (the tragically misinformed) wish to do it because they want to get rich quick.

There are all kinds among the students in Merle Carbury's creative writing course.

They're sweating a bit when we meet them, as the end of the course is looming and they're due to submit the manuscripts of their novels.

And then there's Merle herself. She is passionate about writing, and an ardent follower of her own advice that writers should first and foremost be readers - apprentices, admirers and critics of the work of others.

Merle has published six novels, but the well of inspiration seems to have run dry.

All the same, she somehow manages to stay even-tempered and tolerant in the face of the presumption and arrogance of her charges.

Meanwhile, life goes on, occasionally imitating art. Each evening, Merle goes home to her husband Brendan, a washed-up producer of TV documentaries who has failed to lower his standards at the same rate as the product he works on, and who has suffered a mental health crisis; and Jurgen, their elderly German boarder with a mysterious past.

She shares an office and her job with Gareth, a kind of literary one-hit-wonder whose first novel netted him a moderately prestigious award. He seems to be becoming romantically involved with one of Merle's students, the beautiful and self-absorbed Jacinta.

This, broadly speaking, is the situation at the centre of Stephanie Johnson's latest novel, The Writing Class. It's a clever concept: it's part how-to-write textbook, part romance and, you suspect, part catharsis for Johnson, whose own adventures among aspiring scribes have left her with a store of pent-up misgivings to vent.

It works pretty well on all those levels. Merle has pearls of genuine wisdom to impart, even if her students are (for the most part) swine. The narratives of Brendan's slow rehabilitation and Jacinta's train-wreck romantic life are well handled. Jurgen's secret is a neat sub-plot. And you get the sense that it took remarkable self-control for Johnson to refrain from brutally satirising writing classes and writing students.

Nevertheless, there is a slight unevenness of tone arising from the fact that the students are somewhat caricatured. It's hard to believe in Tosh, the white Rastafarian who is writing a "rap novel". Some of the others - Szu-Wen, the driven biochemical engineer hoping to squeeze in writing a blockbuster on the side, Rob the "hyper-fit lesbian in lycra", Natasha, whose dreamy children's novel (the first in a projected series of 15) stars a purple dragon - are two-dimensional. This, of course, may be deliberate: the "plot" and the characters can be viewed as worked examples of creative writing theory.

Beneath it all, shining through, there is the compulsive writer's transparent affection for and bafflement at the craft and business of writing. Also noteworthy is her collegiality: the names of writers are salted throughout, and they are drawn from the canon of the novel, from the ranks of contemporary luminaries and from among Johnson's New Zealand peers with a generous lack of discrimination.

If you want to learn about writing, whether by rote or by example, then The Writing Class is for you.

- NZ Herald

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