Unless It Moves the Human Heart is a nonfiction book described by author Roger Rosenblatt as “fiction, top to bottom.” But don’t expect Oprah Winfrey to dress him down in the town square. Rosenblatt, who has taught writing for 40 years, has merely recreated from memory the highlights of some classes he taught in the winter and spring of 2008 at Stony Brook University. Nobody drinks to excess or ends up in rehab, but neither are any of the lines attributed to students verbatim quotes. What we get is an approximation of Rosenblatt’s “Writing Everything” class, which includes short fiction, poetry and the essay.
At a mere 176 pages, Unless It Moves the Human Heart can be devoured in an afternoon over a pot of tea. The wry humor and banter between the students, who range in age from 20- to 70-something, and their teacher, who occasionally makes a point by bopping someone on the head, is a pleasure to take in. And Rosenblatt’s easy wit (he has 12 students and calls it “a very good number for a writing class, as it is for juries and apostles”) makes for fun reading. But there’s terrific advice and analysis going on as well, from the critiques of student work (real samples of which are included) to discussion of some classic literature and exercises that promote leaner, sharper prose.
The class reunites for dinner one year after their last class, and Rosenblatt answers their questions about agents, editors and the writing life. As with the rest of the book, good humor abounds, but his replies are helpful and to the point: Good editors are in short supply, but can only benefit an author; if you want to write, do it, but find a way to support yourself as well. In a final letter he sends to them, he writes, “Both you and the human heart are full of sorrow. But only one of you can speak for that sorrow and ease its burdens and make it sing—word after word after word.” Writers, or those who have always dreamed of writing, will take much away from this lovely book.