Sunday, May 13, 2012

Review: Attack of the Copula Spiders, by Douglas Glover

Writing manuals fall into two general categories: those that teach you how to write from the tip of your pen and those that teach you how to write by showing you how writers should process and function in the world around them. The most extreme case of the former would, I suppose, be Strunk and White’s seminal The Elements of Style, and an example of the latter would be something like Annie Dillard’s Living by Fiction. Both are dedicated to helping writers improve their craft; but one works at strengthening the sheer technique that occurs at the writer’s point of contact with the page, while the other works to help the writer understand what she must do (or become, or witness) before she can even begin to write.

While Douglas Glover’s Attack of the Copula Spiders straddles both of these camps in certain essays, his allegiances remain with good writing that comes via the tip of the pen. In both the title essay and the bluntly named “How to Write a Novel” and “How to Write a Short Story: Notes on Structure and an Exercise,” Glover offers a clinical approach to strengthening works of fiction at the level of the sentence. His sortie on the verb “to be” in “Attack of the Copula Spiders” is particularly brilliant: he shows how overusing of this verb and its variants (is, was, am, etc) can really weaken a work of fiction and make it appear devoid of any legitimate action. By identifying these verbs and coming up with alternatives, any writer can introduce more forward momentum to his or her prose.

Glover also dissects thematic patterning, plot structures and dialogue writing, and introduces a nifty explanation of sentence-level conflict or tension called the “but-construction.” A lot of this is highly technical and may be somewhat off-putting to the novice writer just starting to learn elements of the craft. But for those who feel ready to graduate from, say, Jack Hodgins’ A Passion for Narrative or Stephen King’s On Writing, then Attack of the Copula Spiders can provide a more in-depth look at how writers plan, structure, write and improve their fiction.

To counterbalance the highly technical side of the book, Glover has also included some thoughtful essays on the works of Alice Munro, Mark Anthony Jarman, Leon Rooke and others. The pieces examine these writers’ works at the level of craft, getting under the hoods of some excellent writing to show us exactly how they function. It was interesting to read his essay on Alice Munro’s “Meneseteung” very shortly after I read K.D Miller’s brilliant piece on Munro in the most recent issue of CNQ. The differences between these two explorations typify what I mean by the writing-from-the-tip-of-the-pen-versus-not mentioned above. Glover is concerned more with the minutiae of Munro’s craft, the small devices that elucidate meaning, the turns of phrase, and the way the time sequences in the story are so carefully layered. While Miller’s essay also covers many of these things, she’s more interested in taking a bird’s-eye view of Munro’s feats—that is, the type of person Munro needs to be in order to write this kind of emotive, empathetic and highly charged fiction. Miller is concerned more with the soul of the writer; Glover is concerned more with what happens below the writer’s wrists. The two essays are wonderful complements to each other.        

If I had one criticism of Attack of the Copula Spiders—if this even counts as a criticism—it’s that many of the excellent technical bits that Glover provides often lack concrete examples from the world of literature. I often found myself wanting to write “For instance?” in the margins of the book, especially during the “How to Write a Short Story” essay, where there is a paucity of quotes from canonical short stories that would help illustrate the (very fine) points Glover is making. If Attack of the Copula Spiders shares a kinship with any one writing manual, it would be James Wood’s How Fiction Works; but whereas Wood appears to have the entire body of English literature at his fingertips, serving up examples hand over fist, Glover seems sometimes to limit his examples to just a handful of books in any particular section. Often, these examples come from his own works of fiction.

But this doesn’t detract much from the overall value of Attack of the Copula Spiders as a resource for both intermediate and experienced authors. It can hold its own with any of the writing manuals mentioned above, and is as rich and engaging as they come. Glover is a pro and well worth paying attention to.  


  1. Attack of the Copula Spiders is one of the best books on writing I've ever read! Thanks for this thoughtful review.

  2. Thanks Laura. I'm glad you enjoyed both the book and the review.

  3. I'm ordering this now, but let's not call it procrastination, okay? My semester is over so this book will be my summer "class".

  4. Okay, I have this in hand and read most of it in the last two days (with pencil in hand).
    Seriously, it's amazing. I love the verb percentage data.
    Best yet was the short story chapter...although I agree, examples would have been nice.
    But it gave me some ideas to follow, that whole AxB1, AxB2, AxB3. It made me return to a short story I'm finishing and look at it with fresh eyes.
    Again, great review!

  5. That's so great to hear, Amy. Thanks for the fantastic comment.