three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
49-Nov-Dec-2010
By: 
Tom Grimes
user_rating: 
0

A Memoir

A-MentorTom Grimes directs the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Texas State University.

The Topic: Mentor centers on Tom Grimes's relationship with Frank Conroy, the author of Stop-Time (1967) and the director of the Iowa Writers' Workshop between 1987 and 2005. Grimes went from a job waiting tables to the literary life when he was selected for a prestigious scholarship from the workshop in 1989. He soon became Conroy's top student and completed his first novel, Season's End (1992), under his tutelage. Although the novel proved a commercial failure, the two men's friendship endured and evolved. Grimes, now the director of a writing program himself, came to view his relationship with Conroy (and this resulting book) as more significant than the work that originally brought him to Iowa.
Tin House Books. 256 pages. $16.95. ISBN: 9780982504895

Washington Post 4.5 of 5 Stars
"From now on, anyone who dreams of becoming a novelist will need to read Tom Grimes's brutally honest and wonderful Mentor. While there have been plenty of books on how to write, or how to get published, or how to promote your work, as well as a number of triumphalist accounts of ‘making it,' this is a story of what it's like to just miss succeeding." Michael Dirda

Onion AV Club 4 of 5 Stars
"Mentor is for anyone fascinated by the mundane mechanics of the writing world, and it's also an eloquently confessional memoir. ... [I]n spite of the occasional forced metaphor that never got workshopped out, Mentor is near-great writing about the mechanics of both writing and publishing, anatomizing Grimes' career and memorializing Conroy's." Vadim Rizov

New York Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"What Mentor is really about ... is the slow-motion derailment of Mr. Grimes's own once promising literary career, a process that took his pride before it took his sanity. This is a book about striding up to the brink of success, only to have success disembowel you with a dull steak knife, bow, and then skip away, cackling." Dwight Garner

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 3 of 5 Stars
"As Mr. Conroy moves in and out of Mr. Grimes' life, the story grows less and less interesting because it focuses on the autobiographer's surly temper and growing depression while he reacts to a series of small defeats." Bob Hoover

San Francisco Chronicle 3 of 5 Stars
"The book attempts to investigate a friendship and a writing career, and Grimes is best when charting mixed blessings. At his most honest, and least adorned, he covers any writer's touchstones--the waiting, the rejections, the crippling doubts and the felicitous phone call (‘Come to Iowa!'), the crushing reality that no success, no matter how good, is ever good enough." Susanna Sonnenberg

Critical Summary

The principles of the venerable Iowa Writers' Workshop have come to influence much of contemporary fiction, so it is perhaps no surprise that some reviewers used them to criticize this memoir of that institution and its longtime leader. In particular, several reviewers complained that Grimes abandoned the principle of "show, don't tell" when describing his evolving relationship to Conroy. But less picky critics seemed to truly relish Mentor as a book for literary insiders. As to whether the memoir should be recommended to aspiring writers, critics severely disagreed. Michael Dirda of the Washington Post claimed it is now one of those books all young writers must read; Dwight Garner of the New York Times claimed it might drive them to suicide. Let's hope not.