Mommas, don’t let your babies grow up to write novels. With apologies to Willie and Waylon, their warning against the seductive allure of guitar-picking could apply equally to the world of ”creative writing” as Nicholas Delbanco sees it. What literature professors grandly call ”the life of the imagination” has its perils, and Delbanco portrays them with clarity, compassion, and a merciless eye in The Writer’s Trade.
The author of 14 works of fiction and nonfiction, Delbanco knows whereof he speaks. From the title story about the publication of a precocious young man’s first book — an excellent mimic, he borrowed his best stuff from his immigrant father — to ”The Day’s Catch,” a sorrowful dissection of the failure of a middle-aged novelist’s marriage, Delbanco gets it all just right. In the latter tale, the writer’s wife praises his books, but also other novels: ”He thought this a betrayal. Her enthusiasm for the work of others should be tempered, he believed, by greater admiration of his own. That she never voiced a criticism made him the more suspicious.”
”Panic” deals with the middle-aged disquiet of a fiction writer who’s far too good a critic not to wince at his own limitations — even when others seem not to notice. ”His Masquerade” treats the intimations of fraudulence felt by a young writer required to entertain an older poet whose mad bard act wears thin. In ”And With Advantages,” an ambitious young man ingratiates himself with an elderly author of great eminence — only to have the cunning old man seduce his lover.
Read in one sitting, they do tend toward sameness of theme. Like most short stories, Delbanco’s are best taken one at a time. B+