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.