The Writing Class, by Stephanie Johnson, is structured as exactly that. It is a course book going through the novel writing process from beginning to end, interspersed with character studies. Merle Carbury, the main character, is a teacher of creative writing following the traditional approach of teaching by example of the literary greats. Her position is contrasted by Gareth, her co-tutor, who is taking a modern approach, accountable to no one, or so it seems.
The novel applies literary devices from classic authors, most visibly in adopting Thomas Mann’s strategy of setting a novel in a distinct location without ever naming the place, but describing it in such detail that the local reader will recognise it without a doubt: harbour bridge, thinly disguised inner suburbs, leaky homes and all.
Merle’s home life with her depressed husband and a mysterious German lodger lifts the story out of the microcosm of the writing class. The only other characters who have a life outside of the class environment are Gareth’s love interest and her cuckolded husband, who is also of German origin. Although there are characters from various ethnic backgrounds and subcultures, only the German themed back stories get considerable attention.
All characters but the main protagonists necessarily remain clichés. Nevertheless, this is an ensemble piece with the character’s lives intertwined, one feeding off the other. As each student works towards completing their literary work the lives of some characters transform, while others remain static. But a little something is revealed about every one of them. It is all ‘lies and wonder’, as it is so poignantly quoted in the novel. The endings may signal new beginnings for some.
The Writing Class is an intelligent experimental novel within a text book, or the other way round, deploying some of the literary traits it discusses within, constantly reminding us of its own status as an artefact. A must read for every literary minded person with an interest in the novel writing process.
Reviewed by Melanie Wittwer.