Amy Gallup was a promising writer oncepublished and highly praised at twenty-two. It was all downhill from there, and now, year in and year out, she teaches a writing workshop at the local university extension. And this semester begins just the same as the others. But then there's a threatening phone call, followed by obscene threats worked into the student's peer evaluations. Then a murderand every one of the students is a suspect. The clues are hidden in their writing, and she (and we) can solve the murder only by looking more closely at each writer's attempts at fiction. Hilarious, vicious, and elegantly written, The Writing Class examines the desperation, perversion, and mania of the writing life through an unforgettable mystery story.
This novel from Jincy Willett, who wrote the well-liked Winner of the National Book Award, focuses on an extension school class of would-be fiction writers; its premise is that years of rejection slips have pushed one of those would-be writers from the cliffs of sanity into the realm of murder. It s a mystery from the Agatha Christie vintage. Most of the characters, at some point, stumble into the glare of suspicion, and Amy Gallup, a washed-up novelist and the class instructor, must play detective. Francine Prose s Blue Angel and Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys also harvested satire from the vanity, fecklessness, and unintentional comedy of a writing workshop, but they didn t rack up a body count. The idea of a failed writer s anger turning murderous has a giddy verve, and the novel s tone is appropriately playful. Events ultimately reach a helium pitch of incredibility, but the volume rises with deceptive gradualness, in part because Willett gives her protagonist a rich, idiosyncratic inner life. The author remains attentive, also, to the ways that language shapes and animates character. Amy keeps a blog with lists of "funny-looking words"; one female workshop participant grows increasingly consternated over the default use of masculine pronouns. Even as Amy expatiates to her pupils on the rules of good storytelling, elsewhere the book cheerfully violates them. The cleverest trick comes, finally, when the murderer s own notes are exposed to the harsh atmosphere of a good workshopping. If life and death fall under the rubric of morality, the novel argues entertainingly, then so do mixed metaphors, bad dialogue, and cliché. Off with their heads. --Ian MacKenzie