Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Reading Like a Writer by the Aptly Named Francine Prose

Prose, FrancineReading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write ThemNew York: HarperCollins, 2006.

Reading Like a Writer is different than the other books about reading that I’ve read so far.  Francine Prose doesn’t discuss judging what you read, but learning from it.  She wants readers, like herself and the aspiring writers she teaches, to look at how great writers accomplish what they do.  In that sense it is as much a book about writing as it is about literary criticism.

The book is organized with writing in mind.  Prose covers topics that are of interest to writers of fiction: words, sentences, paragraphs, narrative, character, dialogue, details and gesture.  In each chapter she discusses these issues using examples from works of classic literature.  I confess that I’ve read very few of the books she references, but she provides enough of a quotation or explanation that you don’t need to have read the book to follow her illustrations.  You don’t need to have a degree in literature to follow; this book might serve as an introduction to some classic literature.

The method Prose proposes is close reading.  This is slow, attentive reading.  It can be very purposeful, such as seeking out every time an author uses a particular word or concept.  Of course, to read with such a particular purpose in mind suggest you or someone else has already done a close reading with a more general purpose of paying attention and noticing how the book affects you and how the author accomplishes those effects.

Close reading is not intended to be a dry and analytical.  Books can be enjoyable, moving and fun.  If a fiction book doesn’t have some emotional impact on you, even if simply the pleasure of entertainment, then why would you bother to read it?  Close reading includes taking in the beauty of a story and the words used to express it.  You may not want to approach every book this way, but great books are worth the time and effort.

This book might be interesting to the critic or reviewer, professional or amateur.  I think it will be more interesting to aspiring writers who want to learn from the masters.  Prose has several masters to recommend and an approach to setting at their feet as they teach.  She won’t tell you how to write.  As much as there may be rules to writing there are examples of great writers who have bent or broken them. Reading Like a Writer may help you discover how writers did it well and hopefully you’ll continue that course on your own.

If you’re interested in this book, you may also be interested in
How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read by Pierre Bayard