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Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd
Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction
Random House
Us Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 978-1-400-06975-0
Publication Date: 01-15-2013
204 Pages; $26
Date Reviewed: 01-26-2013
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2013

Index:  Non-Fiction

It's easy to think that 'Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction' by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd is yet another writer's manual, a collection of rules, back-patting and proscriptions assembled to offer would-be writers the equivalent of literary tech support. But the first page of the book belies this notion. Kidder and Todd begin the book saying, "We met in Boston, at the offices of The Atlantic Monthly."

With an ease so seamless as to be invisible, the authors create present themselves as characters in their own creation. Kidder is a green writer, willing to do whatever it takes to get himself published. Todd is a patient, visionary editor who sees some worth in encouraging Kidder. They will have to learn to work together. What they learn — their story — is compelling and even essential in what we call the Information Age. Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd have spent the last 40 years gathering information from the world around us all and presenting it in a manner that allows them to communicate to their readers what it is they have learned. They have learned to tell the story of what they have learned. With 'Good Prose,' they tell the story of how they learned to tell stories. It's a literary Möbius strip.

'Good Prose' is not mere memoir. Kidder and Todd let their subjects lend structure to the stories they tell, while the stories give the subjects verve and vibrancy. Having introduced themselves as characters, we start at the beginning with a section about beginnings. They style here sets the tone for the rest of the book. It's informal, with italicized first-person stories from TK or RT leading into more expository sections that analyze quoted passages and the authors' own experiences. Often, the authors offer guidelines, but there are no bulleted lists to be found until the very end when the authors offer what they call a "style guide." 'Good Prose' is built with the tools of the title.

One of the great strengths of this book is the authors' easy, understated sense of playfulness and humor. Kidder makes fun of himself and in particular his early, first novel. He's not alone; Todd does as well. But it's done with a sense of generosity that really informs every word in the book. Given that the two have worked together for so long, they've done a superb job of editing both themselves and one another. The periodic stories we glean from their long association are engaging, interspersed with wry commentary and analysis of good prose. A brief examination of the general admonition against using the passive tense and the verb "to be" goes gently against the general grain. It's fun to read, a rather incredible accomplishment that is easily missed.

While the title might suggest that 'Good Prose' is aimed only at writers of non-fiction, it's actually just a work of non-fiction about writing good non-fiction, which is not at all the same thing. Kidder and Todd spend a fair amount of time talking about and to readers. If you enjoy reading, this is definitely a book for you. Moreover, no matter what sort of writing you do, from grocery lists to office memos to Christmas letters to desk-drawer science fiction space-operas, the effect of reading 'Good Prose' will make your job easier. The authors have managed to write prose that will make you think about reading prose and writing prose with a new sense of clarity and purpose.

As characters, Kidder and Todd are an enjoyable pair to hang out with in these printed pages. Their stories and voices weave through smartly organized sections on Beginnings, Narratives, Memoirs, Essays, Accuracy, Style and Commerce, culminating in a chapter about "Being Edited and Editing." The narrative is never too dense or too chatty. While the friendship between Kidder and Todd is important, it's not overplayed. 'Good Prose' is, after all, a work of narrative non-fiction, a genre it analyzes thoroughly and entertainingly.

The subject of 'Good Prose' is writing, but the authors are quite clear that this book is for reading. We meet them in Boston, at the offices of The Atlantic Monthly, and follow them, immersed in their words and their world. We can close the book when we are done reading, but the vision of how one word leads to another lingers with a new confidence and clarity.

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