Famous Writers School

by Steven Carter (Counterpoint)



In the 1960s and '70s, thousands of aspiring writers enrolled for the illustriously named correspondence class, the Famous Writers School. After submitting aptitude tests (which every applicant passed), students mailed stories to a staff of "famous" writers, who provided generic and encouraging comments on their manuscripts. (Decades later, this served as the basis for an even more dubious scheme, called the masters degree in creative writing. Zing!)

Steven Carter's novel, Famous Writers School, zooms in on the fictional correspondence between a Famous Writers teacher and his three pupils. There's no conventional narrative here: "Writer-in-residence" Wendell Newton mails out six lessons, which "cover all the elements of fiction"; the students turn in their assignments; and Wendell grants them some of that invaluable Famous Writers School feedback. It's a bit of an easy satire for Carter, who teaches at Georgetown, but he's a funny writer, and the premise gives him a chance to show off his chops.

If you can imagine David Brent or Michael Scott from The Office teaching people how to write fiction by mail, you've got a reasonable sketch of "Professor" Wendell. The assignments he sends students are based from his own mawkish prose and are smothered in hilariously bad writing advice. ("Because it ends well, this story is a comedy... Look at the story you've been writing and decide if what you have is a comedy or tragedy.")

Wendell's students are appropriately ragtag: There's a divorcee who never actually completes an assignment (this doesn't stop the enamored Wendell from offering to publish her in his literary journal, Upward Spiral); a crazed stalker zeroing in on her teacher; and a genuinely talented detective writer who instantly becomes Wendell's nemesis. His manuscript gives Famous Writers School a "book within a book" jelly filling that feels too much like padding by novel's end.

Carter moves deftly between four voices throughout the book, and rarely goes more than a page or two without invoking a chuckle. That might not sound like extraordinary praise, but it's a hell of a lot harder than it sounds. (Anyone interested in learning the secrets and tricks behind skilled prose like this should send a check or money order to my attention and await further instruction.)


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