At this point I found myself peering out through the bathroom curtains, fearfully looking out for lurkers in the back yard. God knows I've had one or two of those before today, too, not to mention Creative Writing students who were (a) monumentally pissed off with me for not admiring them enough, and/or (b) clearly mad.
However, the heroine is afraid of the dark, which means she can't possibly be me. (Never underestimate the power of the general reader's desire to map real people, places and events neatly onto those in fiction, thereby demonstrating that they regard a novel as a kind of Rubik's Cube.) She has one dog that doesn't like her much, not two smoochy cats. She's American, which I am not, and her name, unlike mine, is Amy.
And it's just as well she is not me, because she has a much nastier psycho in her life even than her troll: one member of her (otherwise variously interesting, nice and/or talented) fiction-writing class is leaving horrid, ugly anonymous letters, notes, calls, drawings and other psychologically damaging calling-cards with all of his/her classmates, and with Amy, and two members of the group end up dead before their stalker and murderer is finally caught.
Like all those driven by malice, the murderer turns out to have a grudge that she/he is projecting onto individual members of the group: she/he can't get his/her own fiction published. This, she/he decides, is the fault of rivals and of the people who teach and encourage them. The final showdown contains a conversation that I will, if I ever teach a fiction-writing class again, make copies of and hand around in the introductory class:
'I've read your story,' said Amy, trying to remember its particulars. "The Good Woman".'
'You said it didn't work.'
'I said it needed revision. It was about an old woman obsessed by the immoral conduct of her neighbour.'
'And from that you surmise what? ...'
'That you're observant,' said Amy. 'That you've always been a watcher, which is a great asset for a writer. That at some point you started keeping score, which is not. ... You took your eye off the page, where it belonged, and trained it on all those s.o.b.s who didn't love what you'd written.' ...
'Why don't they publish me?' [Murderer's] voice cracked, [his/her] face was drained of colour, and for the first time Amy saw that [she/he] was unwell. ... 'They give two-book contracts to MFA whores** with their MFA sentences and their MFA networking and they give me sorry, thanks, try again. I'm better than them. You know it. I've got something to say. I have a mind.'
'Yes, but you don't know how to tell a story.'
[Murderer] looked at her with loathing.
'You can do scenes, and character, and you write a mean sentence ... and you've got good ideas, but you don't know what a story is. "The Good Woman" started out great and then just ended because it had to. It wasn't a story at all -- it was a polemic.'
* I have now in the course of my novel-reading job read at least four or five novels in which blogs feature prominently, usually as part of the plot. They may yet become as central and as useful a narrative device as letters were to fiction in the 18th and 19th centuries.*** The possibilities are endless.
** The US Master of Fine Arts in writing now seems to be the gold standard for formal qualifications in writing.
*** More free Creative Writing advice: The Writing Class is a bloody good novel, in its genre, and part of the reason for that is that Willett has made excellent use of the 'house-party' sub-genre of crime fiction (of which she has clearly read at least 20 or 30 examples), and of the newly emergent 'reading group' sub-genre ditto. I would also be willing to bet a great deal of money that she had read and learned from Dorothy L. Sayers' best Lord Peter Wimsey novel, Gaudy Night, which this book recalls without ever actually imitating.
The point: writing will always be enriched if it demonstrates some sense of where it fits overall in the history of literature. There are no decent writers who don't read. There's an utterly bizarre notion held by some writing students that they don't want to be 'influenced', as though their writing were some sort of virgin entity that must not be defiled. The truth is that if you don't read, then your writing will be, of necessity and even at its very best, a thin and intellectually impoverished re-invention of the wheel.