REVIEW: “The Devil is in the Details” by Connie Willis

Review of Connie Willis, “The Devil is in the Details”, in Tod McCoy and M. Huw Evans, eds., Pocket Workshop: Essays on Living as a Writer (Hydra House Clarion West Writers Workshop, 2021): 45-49 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Not all advice is going to work for all writers in all contexts, and Willis’s piece is one that doesn’t work for me. She rightly points out how it is the little details that can really make the setting of a particular scene, that allow the author to evoke a place or a period without having to spell everything out, and also how getting a detail factually wrong can utterly ruin a story for some readers. What I think this piece misses out is a recognition that sometimes it is the giving of the details, whether they are “correct” or not, that can break the story. She says that these details “have to be specific and vivid” (p. 45); but I’m sure I’m not the only one who has felt the incongruity of the insertion of details that are too specific, too vivid, where their specificity is becomes more important than the detail itself. I think perhaps my complaint comes from disagreeing with her about the purpose of these details. Willis quotes Joseph Conrad on the task of the writer, which is “before all, to make you see” (p. 46) the story through written words alone. This is an unfortunately narrow view of the purpose or point of writing, and does not take into account anyone for whom mental images are either absent or substantially impaired. Trying too hard to draw a picture in the mind of a reader, or to turn a detail into a symbol or metaphor for the story itself (Willis’s “telling details”, p. 47), can be as bad as not trying hard enough.

Then again, perhaps that’s just what makes details so devilish.

REVIEW: “I Met a Traveller in an Antique Land” by Connie Willis

Review of Connie Willis, “I Met a Traveller in an Antique Land”, Asimov’s Science Fiction November/December (2017): 168-197 — Purchase Here. Reviewed by Kiera Lesley.

I have to find Ozymandias’s first. It’s here someplace, on one of these endless, look-alike streets. It has to be.
Because otherwise all those endless shelves of books – all those histories and plays and adventures and sentimental novels and textbooks and teen star biographies are gone. And whatever fascinating or affecting or profound things were in them are as lost to us as that vanished kingdom of Ozymandias’s. Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair indeed.

Jim is on a book publicity tour, based on his successful blog “Gone for Good” where he advocates for an end to nostalgia for things that no longer have a use disappearing: VHS tapes, payphones, telegrams. In Jim’s view, things being surpassed by better things and therefore being lost is part of the natural order of things. That is, until he stumbles into Ozymandius Books. Describing beyond this point would be giving away what makes this story special. This is a classic story of a protagonist falling into a strange world and then returning, not the same as they were when they started. Describing that world is the story and it’s done wonderfully here.

This novella was probably my favourite story this issue. It’s a lovely read for its own sake, but I enjoyed pausing while I read this to think about the questions it was raising: about the inherent value of books, whether updated knowledge invalidates the usefulness of the previous, and whether a book or a story loses its value when society moves away from it. At it’s core though, I Met a Traveller in an Antique Land asks two questions: Where does the last copy go? And does anyone care about it?

This story is necessarily a bit literary in tone and theme – being a meta-consideration of books and literature and their importance – but Willis’ narrative pacing and descriptions of Ozymandius were great and kept it from becoming too navel-gazey.