Wednesday, May 11, 2016

On Writing, Charles Bukowski

Staff review by Chris Saliba

This collection of Bukowski’s letters on the subject of writing crackle with fire, rage and wit.

The title is a slight misnomer. On Writing is not really a book of Bukowski’s musings on the art of writing. In fact, he would have scorned the idea (he knocked back a job teaching creative writing). What you get here is a jagged collection of Bukowski’s letters to friends, writers and editors in which he rants and raves about how bad the state of literature is. The letters aren’t reproduced in total, only the sections that deal with books, writers and literature. Hence the rather rough and gritty feel of the book. To my mind this doesn’t work so bad, considering Bukowski’s style.

Bukowski’s main gripe is about the inauthenticity of much contemporary writing. He complains that it is mannered and artificial, too concerned with style and perfect sentence structure. Writers are in it more for the fame than anything else, Bukowski accuses. They are careerists. The main problem with modern writers is that they don’t have anything to actually write about. They haven’t lived, haven’t experienced the dark side of life, whereas Bukowski spent decades working low paid jobs, hung out with lowlifes and drank too much. Contemporary successful writers, he says, lead lives that are too cosy.

There is no denying Bukowski’s passion on this subject in On Writing. His letters crackle with fire and anger. He made a point of keeping himself distant from other writers and genuinely hated literary cliques. His constant banging on about the importance of getting down on the page life’s painful, ugly experiences, shows how vitally important the truth was to him. As he writes, “Writing is only the result of what we have become day by day over the years.” While there’s a lot of anger and range in On Writing, Bukowski can also be very funny, in his typically coarse way.

This is a brutal, tough collection of letters that should be read by any aspiring writer. There is much to disagree and wrestle with, but Bukowski’s key lesson that truth and purpose makes books live is one that sometimes gets forgotten.

On Writing, by Charles Bukowski. Published by Canongate. ISBN: 9781782117223 RRP: $32.99

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