Book review: How To Write Like Tolstoy

Did you know that Sophia Tolstaya, wife of Leo Tolstoy, copied and edited War and Peace seven times before the author felt it was ready to be printed?

Book review: How To Write Like Tolstoy

Richard Cohen

Random House, €23.79

Did you know that William Goulding flirted with titles such as ‘To End an Island’ before an editor at Faber suggested Lord of the Flies?

These are just a couple of the numerous little factoids that Richard Cohen uses to illustrate the pillars that form the foundation of a novel in How To Write like Tolstoy.

He starts at the very beginning and dissects the opening line across a number of immortal works and from there he builds his argument as to what constitutes a great novel and what are the minute crafts behind it?

Why do some writers favour a first-person viewpoint for example? How much or how little dialogue should feature? What is the role of irony in the novel? And should a writer ever write about sex?

Cohen’s experience as an editor and his obvious devotion to the novel shines through this book and gives the impression of a particularly brilliant lecturer leading you through his passion.

That passion drives the book and ensures its sincerity. While at times this book diverges into a lesson on the history of great novels, it’s main strength is its ability to inspire a reader to pick up the proverbial pen, or another book, themselves.

Cohen manages not to write a paint-by-numbers book that attempts to be a self-help chart but rather outlines the craft and sacrifices behind the novel.

You will not be qualified to deliver the next great novel upon completion but you will be better qualified to talk about how one might go about it.

Cohen also manages to mostly walk the line between rigorous academic study and light entertainment. His digressions on the virtues of revision, for example, are an ode to the power of a good editor and the little leeway a prideful author might offer.

Ernest Hemmingway, we are told, once observed that half of what he wrote, he left out, while Anton Chekov’s advice to budding writers was ‘Cut! Cut! Cut!’.

Cohen punctuates his chapters with these little gems but while they merely act as the exclamation point on his wider argument, at times they feel a little tacked on.

The book is broken into 12 distinct parts and while structurally it is sound, Cohen does adopt something of a scattergun approach when it comes to analysing novels.

Unsurprisingly, he is best when speaking from the point of view of an editor, but the way he often jumps from one great work to another to illustrate that chapter’s point can feel too random.

A more rigorous examination of fewer texts might have made the argument more compelling.

But that is a minor quibble. Upon finishing this book you are left with a deeper appreciation of the great works of literature and the painstaking process behind them.

In a world where writers are more and more marginalised and have to scrap for every inch of recognition and reward, this book lucidly sums up the craft and guile behind every major work.

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