I’m writing again, a little. [Charles] Shattuck of Accent says he doesn’t see how I can find a publisher for my stuff, but that perhaps someday “public taste will catch up with you.” Christ.
Anyone familiar with the work of Charles Bukowski can predict the advice within On Writing, a collection of hundreds of Bukowski’s letters that meditate on the craft. His process—which goes something like work, drink, write, screw, repeat—cycles through his messages to longtime Black Sparrow Press editor John Martin, contemporary Henry Miller, Bukowski idol John Fante, and Story editor Whit Burnett. Some letters are scathing, some are heartwarming, some are hilarious, but all of them reek of Bukowski’s aura of cigarettes, beer, wine and—if he was lucky—the occasional whiff of cheap perfume.
After publishing his debut novel Post Office in 1971, Bukowski made his booze-fueled brand of fiction look easy. The everyman tale of delivering mail and chronic alcoholism inspired hordes of sauced imitators, as did the notable works that followed: Women and Ham On Rye. Bukowski’s work was fueled by a compulsive obsession with the craft, which he took dead seriously. These selections are just stuffed with heavy-handed criticisms of literary betrayals, imitators, wannabes and, maybe his favorite, the high-brow elite. Right up until his death in 1994, the man had beef with posers, publishers, employers, editors—the man usually had beef. Faulkner was one of his favorite punching-bags. Hemingway took plenty of jabs. Seeing these abundant criticisms within On Writing doesn’t feel like new ground, but a confirmation of writing mantras that Bukowski fans already knew to be true.
So, run screaming if you’re expecting a manual-style writing book in the style of Stephen King’s book of the same title. You’ll be lost among tales of sour bets at the horse track, drunken arguments with girlfriends and stories of rejection letters. And good lord, there are rejection letters. This collection, assembled by editor Abel Debritto, isn’t as much about the craft itself as it is the lifestyle—which, again, should be to the surprise of zero Bukowski readers. Writing wasn’t quantifiable to Bukowski. Like drinking, sleeping on park benches, surviving on one candy bar a day, writing was an experience that rounded out his version of a full life.
The craft wasn’t defined by technique, grammar, even spelling (Bukowski, admittedly, was a better contender in bar brawls than spelling bees). He gave a damn about feel and style, which he discovered through the work of his literary savior John Fante, as well as Louis-Ferdinand Celine, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Hemingway—that is, early Hemingway. The later stuff was lifeless crap, if you’re asking Buk. Bukowski fans, they know this. They’ve read this all before. And jabs at the poetry-reading snobs and half-assed novelists can be traced through the beginning of his poetry down to his final novel, Pulp, which he described as a tribute to bad writing.
Bukowski believed great writing only developed through hours at the typewriter. There were no shortcuts—an idea that’s echoed in Stephen King’s own book with the same title. Writing takes hours, sweat and work, much like Bukowski’s grab-bag of dayjobs documented within Factotum, but even after shifts at warehouses, meat-rooms and factory floors, Bukowski wrote like he drank: compulsively. In fact, near the end of On Writing, he complains to his editor that only a sixth of his work was seeing the light of day.
So maybe On Writing wasn’t the best banner for the collection, mostly because those looking for sage advice from Bukowski won’t find much. But what’s offered, especially for Bukowski’s imitators, might be more valuable. On Writing offers little of the alter-ego bravado that’s present through Post Office and Women, the one that made his gravestone mantra, “don’t try,” so famous. Here, we don’t see a 40-something drunk leaving his job to scale his way to literary significance. Instead, the letters within On Writing show a budding voice attempting to grow in a community he couldn’t understand and instead, probably to a certain Accent editor’s dismay, finding mass success.
For Bukowski’s faithful crowd, On Writing is mandatory reading. It’s a behind-the-scenes look at a body of work that means the world to a certain group of writers. Past that, the payoff for casual readers is minimal. Bukowski’s letters and stories are so woven with his catalog (and presented with little context) that Bukowski-curious writers might find themselves lost in his repeated tales.
The collection’s amassed from thousands of Bukowski letters. Single lines, scenarios and insults still appear like pop song choruses: Bukowski’s spent nights on a park bench. He wound up puking blood, nearly dead in a hospital’s charity ward. For years, he lived on candy bars. By the end of On Writing, they’ll be facts that are hammered into your skull. And for non-converts, it can be exhausting.
Similarly, I get the feeling that a Bukowski-penned book on writing—that is, not a collection of letters—might’ve turned out differently. The volume would be shorter than The Elements of Style, because these letters are rearranged versions of the same sentiment: Live a lot. Write a lot. Preferably in that order. And as a consequence, the book’s main strength is its denial of the very inscription across Bukowski’s tombstone. It’s an absolute treat for long-time fans, but newcomers are best off finding writing lessons elsewhere.