Book: Francine Prose – Reading Like a Writer
Publication date: 2006
Publisher: HarperCollins, New York, NY
Wait! I should have said to the class. Come back! I’ve made a mistake. Forget observation, consciousness, clear-sightedness. Forget about life. Read Chekhov, read the stories straight through. Admit that you understand nothing of life, nothing of what you see. Then go out and look at the world.
The fact that Francine Prose is an English graduate school dropout is comforting to those of us who love literature and yet managed to be utterly miserable while studying it in university. What she has achieved in this book is the delivery of what all we wide-eyed young wannabes were dumb enough to expect from a university English program, i.e., the vital groundwork for a successful literary career.
Writing Like a Reader would have been just as apt a title. Good reading of good literature can produce good writing. To write good literature one must read good literature with an eye to every element that carries the message.
The goal of this mode of study is not necessarily the act of writing; a careful reading of Tolstoy, for example, should lead to a grateful acceptance of Tolstoy’s vision of the world, a vision that transforms our own experience whether or not we choose to write about it. Reading Like a Writer is Prose’s journey into a concept of reality that has been honed, refined, and progressively made whole by some of the best minds in history.
Reading Like a Writer is what we should have read before perusing all of those excellent tomes reputed to give us a taste of how we should be writing. Prose looks at fine literature through a number of lenses, including character, detail, words, sentences, and paragraphs, asking us to read slowly and think carefully about the intended effect of this or that gesture, word choice, or line of dialogue, to take nothing for granted, and to be specific when we tell ourselves what it is about a particular book or passage that makes it engaging and memorable.
The passages quoted in this book are remarkable examples of the principles Prose is trying to teach. They also serve as part of a brilliant marketing campaign for good books in general. Some of these passages and the descriptions Prose gives of their contexts will send you scuttling to the library or bookstore to look up complete books. (I am now desperate, for example, to read Paul Bowles, of whom I’d known nothing before.)
Prose is far from snooty about her reading material, but this journey really is about the best literature, of which she provides a comprehensive beginner’s canon at the end of the book. (Why else break out all these lenses?) Reading True Romance stories for escape and enjoyment is one thing, but carefully examining the writing for meaningful clues to a heroine’s motives is a waste of mental energy. Read good books, and read the heck out of them.
The Bard could use some help scouting out new material. If you discover any books, compact disks, or movies which came out in the last twelve months and which you think fit the Bard’s criteria, please drop a line to firstname.lastname@example.org. If I agree with your recommendation, I’ll thank you online.