Book Review: The Erotics of Restraint: Essays on Literary Form

In every writer’s life there are a few books about craft that have a profound and lasting influence. One of those, for me, was Douglas Glover’s The Attack of the Copula Spiders (Biblioasis, 2012), a sometimes humorous series of essays that focused on the many and frustrating beginning writers’ mistakes he has endured as a college creative writing professor. His advice has cured many budding writers of their bad habits, and shown them the difference between sloppy, unfocused writing and clear, accurate, meaningful prose.

At the far end of the writing spectrum, though, is a world that only a few writers and critics understand, and Glover, a prominent Canadian writer and teacher, shows his mastery of this aspect of literature as well in his latest collection of essays, The Erotics of Restraint: Essays on Literary Form (Biblioasis, 2019).

Here the writing is focused primarily on author intent and technique, rather than the basics, and Glover chooses some of literature’s greats from which to draw his observations: Alice Munro (of course), E. Annie Proulx, Jane Austen, Albert Camus, and others. He puts these writers under his microscope to explore the foundations of form and meaning.

It has always struck me, though, that the basis of form is recursion, which has its roots in rhythm, eros, and memory (memorization), and that the basics of form extend back in human history, long, long before the invention of writing and our current state of historical understanding. We’ve been writing down stories since the Sumerians. Prior to that, for tens of thousands of years, we told them over hearth fires, accompanied perhaps by drums, flute, and lyre, dance or call-and-response chants (you can imagine all the possibilities because many cultures still deploy such rhythmic performances today). That’s a hundred thousand years or more of storytellers and audience practicing together, hammering out form and response in an endless feedback loop, which, one speculates, has hardwired the brain. The reader knows without knowing.[1]

Who benefits from something this detailed and admittedly arcane? The casual reader—even many practiced writers, I think—will ask this question after a few pages, and will likely keep asking it the longer they read. Who needs to know that Plot = (d/r) + (d/r) + (d/r) time>>>[2] apart from a few academics whose careers hinge on the ability to generate this stuff? After all, most writers will say, writing is about understanding character and sympathy. It’s created in the imagination, in the soul. Writing, say those who don’t care to examine at this depth, is intuitive. It’s form from the formless, something like the creation of the universe—or alchemy (and it’s fascinating to listen to these writers try to explain the genesis of a story they’ve written).

But really, from where does this intuition come? Every writer has a core of cultural and experiential knowledge on which their stories and their outcomes are based. These factors influence every work, every sentence, even if the writer isn’t aware it’s happening during the creative process. And if that’s true, who’s to say we can’t add to that knowledge base and therefore begin our fiction from a more enlightened place? Where might we go from there?

That’s the value of Glover’s essays. His deep analysis of great works of fiction is more like the study of, say, quantum physics: the details are fascinating, and on the surface they don’t seem to have any purpose in one’s daily life. And yet, comprehending the underpinnings of our existence in relation to the evolution of storytelling creates perspective that leads to mindfulness, an understanding of what resonates in the human psyche—what words, what phrases, what desires. If a writer can assimilate the knowledge within Glover’s essays—to know it without consciously thinking of it while writing—it empowers her to create works of deeper, more effective meaning, works that engage on both conscious and subconscious levels.

I’m tempted to say that this is not a book for the beginning writer. The concepts discussed are complex, and the examples Glover uses to illustrate his essays are among the most deeply psychological and nuanced in the literary canon. And in fact if a writer is looking for nothing more than formulaic nuts and bolts advice, or a fuzzy sense of encouragement, then there are hundreds of how-to-write primers on the market. But isn’t the goal of writing to produce work akin to the quality of the authors analyzed in these essays? If the answer is yes, then I take it back—dive in, immerse, understand as much as you can, and trust that Glover’s expertise is moving you closer to that goal.

– Joe Ponepinto


[1] –From Glover’s analysis of Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain” in “Anatomy of the Short Story” (page 81).

[2] d = desire; r = resistance. And in Glover’s analysis, each successive instance of desire in a story is more profound than the one that came before. (page 29).