Famous Writers School is the grandiose name of Wendell Newton’s correspondence writing school. He seeks his students through advertisements in the back pages of literary magazines and what his students don’t realize is that Wendell is utterly lacking in talent. A former editorial staff member of America’s Farmer, his school is made up of a collection of unusual students. Rio is a torch singer and Ph.D. candidate with a penchant for confessional writing; Linda Trane is a housewife who may just be a stalking Wendell; and Dan, the only talented one in the bunch whose work has the potential to be published, if Wendell doesn’t steal his novel first.
Famous Writers School: a Novel is the second novel of Steven Carter (author of I was Howard Hughes). A send-up of correspondence courses for would-be writers, Carter chronicles the correspondence between a teacher and his students. Composed in an epistolary manner, the novel is made up of advertisements for the school, the welcome package sent out to lure in students and the lessons Wendell sends to his students. As the novel progresses, the reader is introduced to each of the students through their personal statements and writing assignments.
Wendell’s relationship to each student is different and it is through this interaction that the reader gains some understanding of his character. He is full of frustrations and self-important opinions and, rather than being annoying, he is a sympathetic loser. Carter possesses an understanding of the type of ego that drives Wendell and has painted him vividly for readers.
From the beginning it is obvious that the relationship between Dan and Wendell will be adversarial. Dan has the talent Wendell longs for and is seeking editorial advice Wendell is in no way equipped to give. Carter has portrayed this relationship most clearly in Famous Writers School. The relationships between Wendell and his other two students, while explored in some depth, do not possess the same resonance.
During one of his lessons, Wendell states: “True subtlety in fiction requires more than pyrotechnics with language; it requires that every sentence deliver the punch that is appropriate for the story at that particular moment and that leads to its inevitable conclusion.” Carter’s novel contains subtlety, he deftly maneuvers his plot without exposing his hand too early and he manages the novel’s pacing with a master’s skill.
Unfortunately, his obvious delight in playing with the epistolary method of novel construction becomes tedious with time and the novel’s strongest points are those when Carter sets aside his agenda and presents Dan’s “novel” in a straightforward manner.
Wendell is a character who remains with the reader long after the final page is read. Since reading Famous Writers School, this reviewer often hears his voice echoed when reading a particularly pompous piece of writing. This then, is perhaps the greatest compliment to be paid a writer – the knowledge that his creation lives on in the minds of readers.
Read an excerpt of Famous Writers School here.
Publication Date: October 2006
tags: books book reviews Stephen Carter fiction writing schools