Book review

Writing Manuals for the Masses: The Rise of the Literary Advice Industry from Quill to Keyboard

Written by prof. Jan Baetens.

Writing Manuals for the Masses: The Rise of the Literary Advice Industry from Quill to Keyboard (New Directions in Book History) by Anneleen Masschelein and Dirk de Geest, eds.
London: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2020

Open access: download the book here: https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007%2F978-3-030-53614-5


Writing is a solitary business, slow and extremely time-consuming, without any guarantee of success, symbolic or financial. Nevertheless, nearly everybody dreams of becoming a writer, even a published and successful one. But how to get there?

Talent is not an option. It may help, but it will never be sufficient. Money is not a solution either. Success is like love: you can only sell it, not buy it. Moreover, in technologically enhanced societies financial thresholds are low: online self-publishing costs close to nothing, while talent and genius are old-fashioned concepts which our participatory but highly meritocratic culture has replaced by commitment and hard work. Yes, you can… become a writer. But once again, how to get there?

Luckily, there exists something like writing advice, and during the twentieth century literary counseling has turned into big business.

Writing Manuals for the Masses is not the first book on this practice, which is as old as literature itself, but it is certainly the one that addresses this type of counseling from so many different perspectives and with such a sharp eye on the purposes, needs, and desires of all stakeholders (those in need of advice, those offering it, and all those who function as matchmakers between the two previous groups). The book gives an excellent historical overview of the many ways in which literary advice has grown and evolved, “from quill to keyboard” as the subtitle nicely puts it. But the book is doing much more. It also discusses specific contents (what beginning or aspiring writers are supposed to do), specific techniques (how are literary counselors packaging their advice), and specific contexts (how to study literary advice as a market). In addition, it also tackles the highly sensitive problem of the deeply rooted suspicion toward literary advice, if not the violent rejection of it.

The key question of the book is not that of the raison d’être of literary advice (a false question, it suffices to notice that it exists, while everybody who has ever tried to write knows how necessary it is to feel a hand on one’s shoulder), but that of its incredible explosion since the early twentieth century (and there are no signs that the success of literary advice will not continue to boom in the decades to come).  What are the reasons behind this success? Is it the democratization of culture? The universal pressure to get one’s own 15 minutes of fame? The links between the subfield of literary advice and the larger field of the self-help business? Or why not the effectiveness of these manuals?

Perhaps we should also ask these questions in more negative terms: who is to blame for the success of literary advice? The refusal of formal education to include it in the classic curricula? The collapse of the traditional gatekeeping system and the vanished prestige of traditional officers of taste? The aristocratic skepticism of established writers dismissing amateur writing?

Writing Manuals for the Masses asks all these questions, without emphasizing specific answers. The book is an inspiring mapping of the field of literary advice, which we must now give a place near the very center of literary writing as a cultural practice.

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