The annual fiction issue of THE ATLANTIC contains, along with fiction, an essay by Richard Bausch called "How To Write in 700 Easy Lessons," about how-to-write books. Basically, Bausch is agin' 'em. He presents a few spurious arguments, one confused one, and one good one. As someone who has written three such books, I was very interested in this article, although I don't agree with much of it.
One spurious argument seems to be that reading such books produces "cookie-cutter stories" all written to formula. That may be true of some how-to-write books, but many of them (including mine) do not present plot formula but, rather, suggestions for improving prose or characterization or foreshadowing or other aspects of craft. What confuses Bausch's argument is that he also praises books "with essays about craft and critical analysis of examples of it...like John Gardner's THE ART OF FICTION." Well, in my experience, most such how-to books (including mine) do just that.
Bausch also dismisses all genre fiction as "harmless escapism" (one wonders if he's read Paolo Bacigalupi). This did not build my confidence in his acumen.
However, he does make one strong argument, although it only applies to some writers. Bausch maintains that many would-be writers read how-to books instead of great fiction. He says, "My advice? Put the manuals and how-to books away. Read the writers themselves, whose work and example are all you need if you want to write." I agree with part of this: reading fiction extensively and constantly is essential to becoming a writer. But I also maintain that reading a few good how-to books can sharpen your awareness of craft. Just remember they are a side dish, not the entree.
And Richard Bausch -- read some good science fiction.