The original version of this review appeared in The Writer Magazine, February 2007.
Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them
by Francine Prose, HarperCollins, 288 pages.
Hardcover, $23.95 (also available in paperback as of April 2007, $13.95)
We hear it all the time: If you want to be a writer, read. And don’t just skim, or read for plot, or race through to a story’s end. Read in a special way. Read closely. Read like a writer.
But what does that really mean? How does one read for lessons on craft and technique, lessons that can hopefully be transferred from Flaubert’s or Tolstoy’s pages to one’s own? It’s an essential art for any serious writer, but it can be an extraordinarily elusive one. Fortunately, Francine Prose, herself the author of 14 books of fiction, has given us a guide to her own “education as a novelist” that truly does, as she intends, “help the passionate reader and would-be writer understand how a writer reads.”
Other writers and writing instructors may talk about “close reading,” but Prose actually shows us how it’s done. Again and again, she provides excerpts from published work followed by her own analysis. She looks at words; she looks at sentences; she looks at the language within the dialogue. For Prose, these are the concepts that really matter: she notes that “to talk about sentences is to have a conversation about something far more meaningful and personal to most authors than the questions they’re more often asked, such as, Do you have a work schedule? Do you use a computer? Where do you get your ideas?”
So talk about sentences (and words, paragraphs, dialogue, narration, and much more) Prose does. In neatly divided chapters, she takes on all the true tools of the writer’s craft and shows us how others have used them to maximum effect. She gives us, for example, the first lines of the first six paragraphs in Stendhal’s The Red and the Black, showing how the author “introduc[es] the reader to the topography of the town before narrowing in on one of its inhabitants.” She also gives us that novel’s entire fifth paragraph, “because it is such an elegant example of its form, one of those single paragraphs in which a writer tells us nearly all we need to know about a character.”
Stendhal is no accidental selection. Reading Prose’s examples, as well as following her suggested “List of Books to Be Read Immediately,” you’ll be considering many “classic” authors. Although she highlights some contemporary writers, including Gary Shteyngart and ZZ Packer, her texts of reference come primarily from the canonical past, for which she (refreshingly) makes no apologies: “You can assume that if a writer’s work has survived for centuries there are reasons why this is so, explanations that have nothing to do with a conspiracy of academics plotting to resuscitate a zombie army of dead white males.” Prose even devotes an entire chapter to “Learning from Chekhov.”
At the same time, Prose is careful to point out how often traditions–in the form of familiar writing mantras and “rules”–can and have been broken. Citing an Alice Munro excerpt, for instance, she encourages us to think how much more powerful “telling” can be, when we’re usually directed to “show.” Later, when she notes that one-sentence paragraphs “can be an annoying tic, a lazy writer’s attempt to compel us to pay attention or to inject energy and life into a narrative,” Prose also provides examples (Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” and Raymond Carver’s “Fat”) “in which single sentences actually do seem to merit paragraphs of their own.”
An experienced teacher, Prose also anticipates difficulties newer writers encounter: “Even when novice writers avoid the sort of dialogue that is essentially exposition framed by quotation marks, the dialogue they do write often serves a single purpose–that is, to advance the plot–rather than the numerous simultaneous aims that it can accomplish.” Then she provides counterexamples that instruct, illustrate and inspire (in this case, excerpts, sometimes lengthy, from novels by Henry Green).
“I’ve always thought that a close-reading course should at least be a companion, if not an alternative, to the writing workshop,” Prose muses. For those not lucky enough to enroll in such a course with Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer is an excellent (not to mention relatively inexpensive) substitute.