‘The Art Of” book series from Graywolf Press in Minneapolis is a welcome addition to the family of books about writing. Instead of trying to tackle the entire craft of writing in one volume, each book in the series focuses on just one different aspect, making these texts more than writing manuals: they read like transcripts from graduate-level forms classes, bringing together critical analysis, personal stories, wonder, and humor, sure to be enjoyed by writers and critical readers for years to come.
“The Art of Mystery: The Search for Questions” by Maud Casey, out this week, ruminates on the idea of mystery in fiction — the sense of wonder, the otherworldly, the secret: how a writer can take “us to a place we might not otherwise even know how to get to and make us look.” In a series of brief essays Casey explores just some of the ways authors develop a sense of the mysterious, including the construction of innocence; giving characters carefully-placed (and often unrevealed) secrets; and how the form and structure of a story can be mysterious in and of itself.
As Casey explains: “Mystery — often unclear, often involving unlikable characters, always involving unanswered questions, and often seriously weird and unsettling — requires plunging the reader into that Keatsian state of uncertainty and doubt. No irritable reaching after fact and reason. The reader should, in other words, be undone.” To illustrate her point, Casey performs close readings of texts that take her breath away including James Baldwins’ “Sonny’s Blues;” Shirley Jackson’s “We Have Always Lived in This Castle,” and a wonderful analysis of Paul Yoon’s “Snow Hunters” where she dives deep into the power of one short line of prose.
Books on writing should be inspiring and should remind writers — and readers — why we fell in love with stories in the first place. “The Art of Mystery” does just this.