Reading Like a Writer
It is times like these that I’m glad for my book journaling habit. I read Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer months ago, but a series of deadlines left me with no time (or mental capacity) to put a review together. Now that I have a break, I can pick up the book and my journal again and get right back to it.
Prose—possessing the perfect name for her profession—is the author of numerous novels, a couple biographies and other non-fiction titles, and a handful of children’s books. Like her writing, her reading interests are varied. In Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and For Those Who Want to Write Them, she discusses a wide range of literature, from Flaubert and Dostoyevsky to Munro and Garcia Marquez. Her purpose is to argue that “close reading” of the masters is the best training ground for writers-on-the-rise (in conjunction with writing practice, of course).
Pulling out lengthy quotes, she explicates how the greats craft words (ch. two), sentences, (ch. three) and paragraphs (ch. four). She discusses various choices regarding narration (ch. five), character (ch. six), dialogue (ch. seven), detail (ch. eight), and gesture (ch. nine). Writers will benefit from these observations to varying degrees, depending on the breadth of their fiction reading experience, writing experience, and previous training. For example, one of my favorite writing exercises as a kid was descriptive paragraphs; I studied numerous authors to understand how they selected which details to include, I practiced describing the same scene from multiple points of view, and I read my thesaurus for fun. I usually have just the right words to set my “mood.” So the chapter on “detail” didn’t offer much for me. However, the chapter on “narration” was valuable in shoring up a weakness (derived from focusing so exclusively on description!), helping me think through a potential narrator’s identity and personality by asking the questions “who is listening?” and “on what occasion is the story being told, and why?”
The last two chapters, in which Prose switches from technical studies to broader philosophical issues, are the most helpful.
“Learning from Chekov” (ch. ten) describes principles Prose learned while teaching a college course on Anton Chekov. This captain of the short story gave a great deal of thought to the business of the writer, saying that “the artist should not be the judge of his characters and their conversations, but only an unbiased observer” and that an intelligent attitude to an artist’s work understands the difference between “solving a problem and stating a problem correctly…it is only the second that is obligatory for the artist” (244). Prose also recalls how someone, impressed by Chekov’s inexhaustible output, asked about his method of composition:
Chekov picked up an ashtray. “This is my method of composition,” he said. “Tomorrow I will write a story called ‘The Ashtray.’”
Oh, what I could get done if I just sat down and wrote instead of waiting for the right idea to come to me!
The final chapter, “Reading for Courage,” faces my hang-ups head on:
The fear of writing badly, of revealing something you would rather keep hidden, of losing the good opinion of the world, of violating your own high standards, or of discovering something about yourself that you would just as soon not know—those are just a few of the phantoms scary enough to make the writer wonder if there might be a job available washing skyscraper windows (250).
My thoughts exactly! Prose has been there and says the antidote is reading “brave and original works” written by others willing to risk “what the writer’s mother might have thought when she read them.”
A final valuable contribution is Prose’s list of “Books to Be Read Immediately,” a number of which I am chagrined to say I had not heard of until she brought them up for discussion. I’ve added several to my list to seek out at a used bookstore.
So this is a mixed bag that will appeal to readers and writers to varying degrees. But there is likely something for everyone, not the least of which is an expanded appreciation for the great library of literature available to modern fiction readers.