I recently listened to Colum McCann’s Letters to a Young Writer (Amazon affiliate link), and since I often write reviews I figured I’d write a review of it.
If that feels like an uninspiring opening, you might not be too far from the truth.
Letters to a Young Writer was born out of the seeds of a blog, which McCann mentions in an early chapter, and it feels kind of like a blog.
So, with that said, you have the crux of the weakness in the book. It’s a collection of essays, but they’re all largely independent of each other. The result isn’t terrible, but it means that the entire book has very little build-up and delivery.
If you’re looking for a more comprehensive book on writing, I’d suggest John McPhee’s Draft No. 4 (my review), or quite frankly any of the longer-form books.
With that said, there’s only a couple criticisms that I would care to level McCann’s writing itself instead of the format of the book.
First, it’s overly flowery, and this is keeping in mind that it’s written for writers, and we tend to be flowery sorts. When McCann’s trying simply to inspire, this works really well. However, there are times when he could be giving a practical insight but it’s lost under layers of wanting to look good.
Second, it’s very experiential. McCann acknowledges this and provides plenty of places where he confesses to not knowing things (which I consider a great positive), but the problem is that when you combine this with the flowery nature of the prose you wind up with situations where you get an almost Montaigne-esque “Oh, but I don’t know for sure.”
While that’s certainly better than pretending to know, and it does enable McCann to explore some avenues he might not otherwise want to talk about because he wouldn’t feel authoritative on them, it feels like he’s going off the cuff and hasn’t done research (the idea of whether writers should go for a MFA in writing, for instance, is one where he prevaricates in a particularly noticeable fashion).
As for inspiration, McCann is very inspiring in the sense that he offers good pick-me-ups and a lot of encouragement. Some of the work feels overly political or, perhaps, not political but attached to the notion that the current moment is radically different than all past moments.
To clarify what I mean, it feels like McCann tells the writer to write because only writers can bring truth and purpose to being. Now, I’m not necessarily opposed to that, as someone who is very into the theories of Jung and Campbell and the roles stories play to our psyche, but this sort of weird teleological devotion sends him off-topic.
If you’re into that, it works well for inspiration. It’s very emotional, however.
All-in-all, the fifty-two essays feel almost like they’re intended to be a once-a-week thing, but the question then is why one wouldn’t just look at a blog. McCann certainly is a gifted writer, and he hits some high points, but with an average length of about three pages the essays generally don’t build on what there is to know about writing beyond a very elementary level.
There are also parts that would be a little too crude for a young writer (i.e. a child), with McCann letting his language get a little coarse. It’s not excessive vulgarity, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable putting it in a classroom library or giving it to a student.
The audiobook was read by McCann himself, and I actually found him to do a really good job of putting emotion into it and making his meaning clear. He has an Irish accent and musical cadence that really makes his point build to a crescendo and carries more than just the letter of the word.
So do I recommend it?
It’s hard to say. At its price ($14 for a Kindle version at the time of writing), there are a lot of alternatives that could serve just as well, either in the form of blogs or more authoritative volumes. If you like McCann, or you’re looking for something like a writer’s devotional, then it might be more of an option.