Only As Good As Your Word

Links:  A link to this review can be found on the author’s blog here. The Amazon Review is here.

My reading backlog is being dented rapidly even as I keep adding books to the pile called to-read. As far as I can, I intend reviewing those books here, or on Amazon-UK, or both.

This post’s title refers to Susan Shapiro’s eponymous book.

At 400 pages, this book demands a lot of time and attention from the reader. Amazingly enough, it took me just 1 day – albeit the whole of that day of my weekend – to finish it. This is down to Susan Shapiro’s writing style which is simple, conversational, light and fast-paced. At times, the breathlessness, with which she might regale a story in person, comes through quite amusingly.

The book is the story – or more accurately, the stories – of Susan Shapiro’s relationships with her writing mentors, interwoven with her running of a very popular writing group in her apartment for many years, her professional progress as a writer all set against a rather rich tapestry of New York’s Jewish society and New York’s publishing world’s glitterati. When the said writing group is dismantled, a student says “I am going to need therapy”. That therapeutic element, in essence, is the sublimation of Shapiro’s relationships with her mentors. She refers to more than one mentor as being like ‘her father’ with whom she appears to have a rather emotionally distant relationship, and then a protégé as ‘her kid sister’.

One has to ask whether for her, every relationship is one prolonged therapy session and exactly when is it that an issue can be deemed “resolved”. Other readers may feel differently about this common thread running through the book, but to me, it was a bit ennui-inducing after some time.

But it is a credit to the book that I still read on.

The most valuable bits are the last 2 chapters: How To Have A Protégé, and How To Get Great Gurus Of Your Own. To budding or growing writers, the tips are brutal but spot-on.

No matter how keen you are to find your own voice, the author’s note before the table of contents is instructive: “Some names and identifying characteristics of people portrayed in this book have been obscured so they won’t divorce, disown, hate, kill, or sue me.”

Rightly so, it is there at the beginning. A rule all writers ignore at their peril.

After all, “a true friend walks in when everybody walks out” , but as Shapiro asked herself (page 262), “who’d be there for you when you were up”. Worth pondering. No matter how tempting it is for a writer to find – and write and publish – juicy stories about one’s family, friends and community, it is always worth having someone who loves the writer and will be happy for her success when it comes, admittedly at its own pace.

I recommend the book highly, but not as the only book to have in the arsenal of a budding writer.

On Amazon, I gave it 4 stars. I recognise it is autobiographical but some of the book is too self-obsessed and too neurotic for my liking; some details of internecine feuds were also avoidable. There are a few, not many but a few, distracting spelling and grammar bloopers in the book, which could have been edited e.g. “none of them ARE”.

Star rating: The book deserves all its 4 stars for the many gems for writers and freelancers, scattered generously through the book.

Usefulness note: The book will interest both budding and established young writers.