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How to Read Like a Writer by Erin Pushman Book Review

How to Read Like a Writer by Erin Pushman Book Review

How to Read Like a Writer, by Dr Erin Pushman, is a 10-chapter exploration of the pillars of creative writing which discusses how, by reading like a writer, you can improve your own writing skills.

With some excellent tips imparted in an easy-to-digest manner, this is a solid primer for the budding writer on how to read in a more analytical way.

But the retail pricing of the book raises significant questions over what the commercial market for this book is.

How to Read Like a Writer
Overview

If you want to be a writer, you need to read more – according to conventional wisdom. You also need to ‘read like a writer’. But what exactly does this mean in practice? 

Fortunately Erin Pushman has assembled a plethora of examples in this short but concise handbook. 

It’s a practical text that discusses topics including ‘pace,’ ‘theme,’ and ‘setting’ in sufficient detail, before assigning the reader a handful of post-chapter writing activities. These chapters guide the reader with some excellent bite-size analyses of each area of writing whilst the activities are thought-provoking enough to help the reader retain the knowledge.

One issue How to Read Like a Writer has, however, is repetition. Pushman frequently uses the same passages from certain texts to illustrate that chapter’s particular lesson. For example, an identical extract from Zadie Smith’s The Embassy of Cambodia appears at least four times across the whole book.

Whilst familiarity with a text makes it easier to comprehend the argument, it does make for incredibly tedious reading. Assuming a basic level of comprehension on the reader’s behalf, and using more varied examples, would have been far more effective.

Regardless, How to Read Like a Writer does a fantastic job of presenting an array of writing styles. This is not simply a how-to guide on writing a 300-page literary fiction novel. Pushman explores fiction (both genre and literary), poetry in its various forms, creative nonfiction, memoir, and so much more.

There’s a remarkable breadth of writing examples on show, and this has to be commended.

Commercial vs Academic Readership

There is one glaring issue with How to Read Like a Writer – and that’s that it isn’t immediately clear who the audience for this book actually is.

On the one hand, it’s published by Bloomsbury Academic, and certainly priced like an academic textbook with an RRP of £19.99 for the paperback and an eye-watering £59.99 for the hardback. Plus, with a bevy of post-chapter activities, the book appears to be designed for formal creative writing classes.

But here’s the thing – if you’re an established writer, you probably won’t need this book.

On the other hand, an aspiring writer who doesn’t have access to a university library is unlikely to drop a significant amount of money just to read this book. Especially when Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer and Stephen King’s On Writing are available on the shelf for the price of a regular paperback.

Comparisons with Reading Like a Writer

Purely because of the near-identical title, it’s inevitable that Pushman’s book will be compared with the veritable monolith of creative writing 101, Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer.

What is apparent from the beginning is that Erin Pushman’s tone and writing style is far more approachable and open-minded to different kinds of writing. Whereas Prose’s book comes at writing from a purely literary stance (and frequently comes across as hostile towards genre fiction), Pushman embraces writing of all stripes.

That’s one of the great things about this book – it’s designed to elevate the writer, not tell them that they’ll never be James Joyce. It’s inviting, convivial, and encouraging for a budding writer – if you can afford it.

And herein lies the issue. This is a book commercially aimed at the more costly academic market, and yet the content is more aimed at creative writing beginners. Meanwhile, Prose’s book – an arguably more reliable academic text – can be picked up for under £10.

Conclusion

How to Read Like a Writer is a solid primer on teaching readers how to read like a writer. It breaks down the various aspects of writing into digestible chunks and includes some brilliant exercises to reinforce the lessons in each chapter.

But with the average reader priced out of the market and an academic writer not requiring a book to teach them how to read like a writer, who is How to Read Like a Writer actually aimed at? It’s not entirely apparent.

And yet, whilst it’s a little repetitive in parts, Pushman’s book is undoubtedly a useful point of reference for those looking to improve their writing craft.

3/5

Full disclaimer: A review copy was kindly provided by the author and publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Mrs Death Misses Death by Salena Godden Book Review

Mrs Death Misses Death Book Review Horizontal

Mrs Death Misses Death is the must-read book of 2021 and Tales from Absurdia’s Book of the Year. 

It’s a modern masterpiece that transcends form and genre. This is perhaps part of the reason that, despite having read Mrs Death Misses Death over 6 months ago, I’ve been mulling over the best way to review a book like this. Because this is, undoubtedly, a difficult book to review.

Salena Godden, a UK poet of great renown, wrote sections of her debut novel to music. This is especially apparent if you read the audiobook. At times, the narrative unfolds as prose. Other times, it manifests itself into Godden’s more familiar form of poetry. 

The tale of Mrs Death even transforms into a screenplay/radio drama of sorts for a brief period. There’s a fluidity to the writing that refuses to be pinned down and categorised by a mere review.

But don’t be mistaken – there is no pretense to Godden’s novel, nor is this an overly complicated book, requiring only ‘high brow’ tastes in order to read. This kind of exclusivity is what Mrs Death Misses Death rails against. 

Godden is merely inventive and explorative in the way that she imparts her tale. It’s clever, thrilling, and never gets in the way of the novel itself.

'Spoiler Alert: We all Die in the End'

Mrs Death Misses Death features two central characters. Wolf Willeford is the first; a poet and aspiring writer whose mother died in a fire when their block of flats went up in flames, echoing the tragedy of Grenfell Tower.

And then there’s Mrs Death herself. In spite of her name, she is not the wife of Death but death itself.

Wolf, author of the in-text Mrs Death Misses Death, transcribes the stories she imparts whilst reaping souls on her journey through history and time.

‘Mrs Death is the woman we hardly see, the woman we do not care to see. She is the person we ignore, she is the pause in the silence, she is the invisible woman. She is the refugee at the border. She is the cleaner. She is the backing singer we never bother to learn the name of.’

Salena Godden, Mrs Death Misses Death

But Mrs Death, a shape-shifter who reconfigures her appearance throughout the novel, is tired of reaping the departed. She’s saddened by the deaths in Syria, and the suicides of people gone long before their time.

This is a dark tale of violent imagery, crippling poverty, and sexual exploitation. The Tale of Tilly Tuppence is particularly emotionally challenging to read.

Ir’s also an essential book for the modern reader – Godden raises a mirror, forcing a confrontation between the reader and the injustices they’ve witnessed in life, and probably ignored.

The pronoun ‘we’ is used persistently throughout, thrusting culpability upon the reader, not dissimilar to the way Albert Camus’s Jean-Baptiste in The Fall scolds the reader for their hypocrisies.

It’s deeply personal, and deeply unsettling.

'Mourn the dead and fight like hell for the living'

In spite if the unsettling content here, it’s worth mentioning that Mrs Death Misses Death is not a nihilistic book in the slightest.

After all, this is a novel penned by the writer of Pessimism is for Lightweights: 13 Pieces of Courage and Resistance.

“Mourn the dead, and fight like hell for the living”, Godden inscribes in the front of the cover, urging us to look forward and focus our energies on improving the lives of the living, rather than lamenting the dead. Because ultimately, this is as much a novel about life as it is death.

Mrs Death Misses Death is also hilarious, alarmingly so considering the subject matter. The introduction, punctuated with witticisms such as ‘Spoiler alert: we all die in the end’, is quite possibly my favourite passage in literature – let alone this year.

This wry, acerbic humour punctuates the entire book, reminding the reader that finding humour in adversity is one of the greatest emancipators of our species.

Conclusion

What makes Mrs Death Misses Death book of the year, outstanding name aside, is its poignancy.

The final pages of the novel are left entirely blank, reserved for the reader to write down the names and dates of loved ones passed on.

In the context of the time that this book was published, at the height of the COVID pandemic, this is a remarkable gesture and testament to the novel’s mature treatment of both life and death. 

Given the scale of loss we’ve suffered collectively as a species in recent years, this is particularly poignant. In pathos, Mrs Death Misses Death encourages us to celebrate life – and cherish the things we love. 

That’s a special kind of optimism we all need right now.

5/5

Mrs Death Misses Death is available at Bookshop.org in both paperback and hardback, or at Audible.co.uk for the audiobook.