This anthology brings together presentations given over the last several years at Ohio University’s Spring Literary Festival, which is described by the editors in the book’s introduction as “a remarkable yearly gathering of some of the nation’s most talented and celebrated writers…in the most rural corner of Ohio.” Fifteen of these celebrated fiction writers and poets appear in the publication, to be released in March 2011: Ron Carlson, Robin Hemley, Francine Prose, Billy Collins, Peter Ho Davies, Charles Baxter, David Kirby, Claire Bateman, Stephen Dunn, Lee K. Abbott, Tony Hoagland, Maggie Nelson, Carl Dennis, Rick Bass, and Mary Ruefle. Each writer focuses on a clearly identified, often narrowly defined topic of interest to readers and writers, typically with the twin goals of helping readers understand the writer’s personal approach to composing his or her work and to an idea of some “universal” importance for reading/writing in general.
Carl Dennis writes about poems close to fiction in their depiction of “characters.” Peter Ho Davies offers thoughts on the structure and composition of the short story collection. Francine Prose discusses the meaning of gesture in narrative. Rick Bass contributes thoughts on the relationship between writers and editors. Ron Carlson discusses the importance for his own process of working of not selecting themes but letting the work evolve its own thematic preoccupations. Maggie Nelson elaborates on the use of facts in poetry (“documentary poetry”). Charles Baxter discusses “stillness” in fiction.
The essays are detailed and sophisticated enough to appeal to writers, particularly novice writers, yet general enough to appeal to readers who are not necessarily writers. They include wisely chosen examples and quotations, but they are not dense and do not rely on particularly close readings and interpretations. They are not academic in style or jargon-driven, and most assume limited background and literary training. They tend to be “popular” in tone and approach, rather than professional, academic, or wholly literary. Many exhibit a personal, or at the very least personable, tone. They reflect a wide range of approaches to the notion of “authority,” in other words, these writers’ sense of themselves as experts on the topic they’ve chosen to discuss. Bateman is most humble and her approach accounts, perhaps, for the Ohio’s festival ongoing success. In “Some Questions about Questions,” she writes: “This essay will be characterized by its lack of identifiable focus, internal transitions, and conclusion, for my goal is not to posit anything in particular, but rather to present my ongoing, ever-expanding web of personal speculation on the topic of questions in poetry.”