The website of writer & artist Dan McNeil


Steven Sherrill | 2004
18th February, 2021
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Cards on the table.

I don’t believe that writing can be taught. As with painting (pictures you fool, not doorframes), writing is an art. It cannot be measured or accounted or explained, except by philistine dullards. You know who they are. They’re everywhere, trying to take over the world, and succeeding. These dummies, who think advertising is an art, but who mumble and stumble and then flee when faced with…a book! Elitist? You bet. There’s too little elitism about these days.

OK, clarification. When I assert that writing cannot be taught, what I actually mean is that it can be taught (no, I haven’t gone mad) – the rudiments, anyway. What I mean is that many people can be taught to write, but most of these taughtees end up producing derivative, mechanical and uninspiring prose. “That’s not writing, that’s typing”, as Capote said (rather unfairly) of Kerouac.

To cut to the chase.

Steven Sherrill has an MFA (in poetry, to be fair). So, when I picked up this book, I expected a load of sub-Capotean Keroucrap. In fact I was not inconsiderably unsurprised, as that witless nonentity John Major might whine. It’s boring to recount that this book isn’t startlingly original (it isn’t: interestingly drawn character finds videotapes of girl who appears to have killed herself. He gets to know her, which allows us to get to know him) but it is pretty well written.

In fact, my only problem is that it’s overly long, a typical symptom of the writing by numbers brigade. In so-called reality (that’s to say, outside of my head), this overlongness is not a terrible problem, either for me, or for the masses; just note the bovine hoards staggering around Waterstones with bloated novels. Most people seem happy enough to plough through overlong dross.

The difference with this book is that although it’s overlong, it’s not dross. Anything but. Sherrill’s descriptive prose is of the “I’ve been there” style – just take in his telling of the protagonist’s climb up a very tall tower. When you read it, you’re definitely there.

So, I haven’t changed my mind about the literary nature versus nurture debate, but a scintilla of my nervous system is mildly humbled.

©Dan McNeil 2003
[This review first appeared in Laura Hird’s Showcase]