Francine Prose (2006) Reading Like a Writer, A Guide for People Who Love Books and Those Who Want to Write Them HarperCollins, London; 288 pp.; ISBN 978-0-06-077704-03
New Scientist magazine used to receive patently unscientific letters about ‘nominal determinism’, where a person’s name appeared to determine their career, so Robert Finch the ornithologist, Igor Judge the chief justice in the UK, or Stella Maris the expert on echinoderms. (All right, I made the last one up.) Francine Prose, a writer and teacher of writing, would have made a great addition to the list of names.
This book (released in paperback in 2007, and re-released in the UK in May 2012) is aimed at people who enjoy reading and those, bless them, who aspire to be writers. Prose makes it clear that in order to be one of the latter you have to be an avid reader, but it is the mechanics of how to read that drive the contents of this rewarding book.
Prose is a strong advocate of what she calls ‘close reading’. This approach, which has gone in and out of fashion over the past seventy years, involves reading slowly, thinking about the choices of words and why they are there, and asking why a story is structured the way it is. It reminded me of parsing lessons at primary school, where we unpicked sentences to name parts of speech, phrases and clauses, and discussed the thorny issues of where to put punctuation, end a sentence and make divisions between paragraphs – mechanical engineering for language, if you will. It builds a set of skills that are fundamental to good writing, but it can never teach you style.
In successive chapters of this book, Prose asks us to look at words, sentences and paragraphs, then to analyse narrative, character, dialogue, details and gesture. Each chapter contains passages from a broad spectrum of writers that both exemplify and (intentionally) undermine the points being made. She sets up rules and breaks them many times in the course of her discussion, in order to show the versatility of writing. Prose occasionally explains what a piece of literature is doing before she presents it, something I found manipulative and annoying, and the choice of passages was at times strange and not always apposite to the point being made. Still, I was introduced to writers that I would otherwise have ignored and that in itself has value.
The chapter on gesture is the weakest. Prose fails to clearly define what gesture is, going beyond body language to include actions taken by characters that do not fit the common understanding of gesture at all.
Prose suggests we delve into the substantial treasury of short stories by Anton Chekhov in order to appreciate the wide range of styles and techniques that can be used in writing, then returns in the final chapter to her overarching point that reading, and a lot of it, is fundamental to good writing, but that we need to read in a specific and analytical way.
I have no great disagreement with Prose’s point of view as far as it goes, but I would argue that ‘close reading’ has to be balanced with rapid reading of text – far more rapid than even reading aloud permits. Most people read novels quickly, even if they take the occasional pause or step back to re-read or check something. Academics especially tend to skim read books and articles in order to grasp the key points before moving in for the kill. So prose has to flow in a way that suits fast reading, as well as doing all the things that Prose shows it must. Content and flow have to co-exist to reach that happy ending.
Francine Prose teaches writing, but admits creativity and imagination cannot really be taught, only the mechanics of grammar and an understanding of what interests an audience. There are anecdotes from her teaching throughout the book and these help to underscore many of the points she makes. As you might expect from a teacher, she has a recommended reading list at the end of the book, but don’t take it too seriously. Ask any dozen writers for their top ten books of all time and it’s quite likely that you will get little or no overlap between them. The important thing is to get out there and explore, and this book certainly encourages you to do that, but to be more thoughtful about how you do it.