STARTING FROM SCRATCH A Different Kind of Writers' Manual
By Rita Mae Brown Bantam. 254 pp. $16.95
GROW UP smart, poor and tough. Read everything you can find, get a good education and then get the hell away from academe. Write a tough, scandalous best seller. Live well and fear no one.
It's an old American story -- the kind that used to appear on book jackets under pictures of a battered-looking male author: "So-and-so has been a prizefighter, a gandy-dancer and a bouncer in a Mexican brothel. He is the author of 22 best-selling books and now lives on the beach in Malibu."
Book jackets these days feature associate professorships and Guggenheims. But Rita Mae Brown followed the old-fashioned path. Perhaps not surprisingly, it's the one she recommends in Starting from Scratch, an engagingly daffy "writer's manual" that reads like a cross between Writer's Digest and Alan Bloom's Closing of the American Mind.
The author of irreverent, sexually outspoken novels like Rubyfruit Jungle and High Hearts, Brown has made the literary world dance to her high-spirited tune: "with a sprinkling of novels that clambered onto The New York Times Best Seller list, with two Emmy nominations under my belt and with contracts for future novels, teleplays, and screenplays in hand, I can say that writing not only makes me happy but brings me rapture."
Starting from Scratch is an account of that rapture -- a kind of how-to guide for those who want to live the life of a famous writer. We get an account of Brown's childhood in York, Pa., and Fort Lauderdale, Fla., as the precocious, combative adoptive child of working-class parents who took her on when her natural father, a high-born Virginian, turned his back on her; her years of struggle in New York; the success of Rubyfruit Jungle, published by a small feminist press and then bought by Bantam; and her sweet life as a successful writer ("My fans are very different from my friend Margot Kidder's fans"). We also get detailed prescriptions for diet and exercise ("If you're on a deadline, going over to the stables is impossible. It takes half an hour to clean and tack up the horses, more if he's muddy"), financial advice ("Don't invest in jewels, gold, or silver"), irreverent political opinions ("The difference between Republicans and Democrats is the difference between syphilis and gonorrhea") and advice on which network is best to write teleplays for ("NBC is like France; it has a commitment to style . . . . ABC is like Italy. ABC has moments of shimmering brilliance allied with total trash").
But if we assume that some actual writing will be necessary before becoming famous, there's not much here to help with it. Brown tells us little that is useful about plot, character or dialogue. The latter two devices seem, for her, to be largely socioeconomic constructs: "The way I fashion dialogue for the middle classes is, I'm careful not to put in offensive metaphors." Brown also has little to say about the short story: "Short stories make me feel claustrophobic. This is a form for which I have little feeling, so I don't think I can say anything constructive." Brown doesn't much care for present developments in fiction such as writing programs ("This is brutal but you've heard it before: 'Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach.' ") or present-tense narrative ("Every story since The Iliad has been written in the past tense. Don't argue with thousands of years of success").
Most old-fashioned is her passion for a return to classical education. Starting from Scratch must be one of the few contemporary writer's manuals to spend an entire chapter lamenting the passing of the subjunctive mood in English. And Brown is not content to prescribe Latin for would-be writers; she argues that literature won't be worth writing until society forces everyone else to learn classical languages -- as well as the Bible -- too. It's ironic to hear this kind of thing from a writer like Brown, who popped joyously up out of the cultural chaos of the 1960s and whose work would get short shrift from the pedants bred by the old-fashioned education she wants to return to.
EVEN MORE curious is the "annotated reading list" Brown appends as the foundation of a writer's education. Beginning with Caedmon's Hymn, she marches briskly forward to Anthony Burgess's Earthly Powers, and omits virtually all works of literature not written in English. Her list prescribes five volumes of Walter Savage Landor but omits Don Quixote, Madame Bovary and The Metamorphosis.
In general, Starting from Scratch is a book to be read more for pleasure than for instruction. But it's churlish to object to so entertaining a tour of the Big-Time Lit Biz. In classical terms Brown would approve of, writing instruction succeeds less because of its logos, the information it provides, than because of its ethos, the example of the instructor. Good writing teachers become for their students role models, mentors, and even antagonists to be proved wrong decades after they're dead. On this level, Starting from Scratch is a howling success. Rita Mae Brown is smart, sassy, sexy and successful. Which of us wouldn't, in our heart of hearts, choose to be like her if we could?
Garrett Epps, author of "The Floating Island: A Tale of Washington," is currently teaching writing at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.