Harper Perennial, 2006, 273 pages
In her entertaining and edifying New York Times bestseller, acclaimed author Francine Prose invites you to sit by her side and take a guided tour of the tools and the tricks of the masters to discover why their work has endured. Written with passion, humor, and wisdom, Reading Like a Writer will inspire readers to return to literature with a fresh eye and an eager heart - to take pleasure in the long and magnificent sentences of Philip Roth and the breathtaking paragraphs of Isaac Babel; she is deeply moved by the brilliant characterization in George Eliot's Middlemarch. She looks to John Le Carré for a lesson in how to advance plot through dialogue and to Flannery O'Connor for the cunning use of the telling detail. And, most important, Prose cautions readers to slow down and pay attention to words, the raw material out of which all literature is crafted.
This was another one of my forays into "Books about writing written by writers," some of which have been quite interesting, a few of which have been useful, but often they turn out to be tedious.
This was one of the tedious ones.
Francine Prose is a highly regarded, award-winning novelist. I've never read anything by her, because the kind of books she writes simply do not cross my radar. Apparently, almost none of the books I like cross hers.
Prose (who admittedly has the perfect name) is very much a Literary writer. It's evident from Reading like a Writer that she is of the school that believes that writers who don't have anything important to say should say nothing. Literature is Art, not entertainment.
She never comes out and says "Genre fiction is shit," but reading between the lines, this seems to be her attitude. In a book full of multiple-page excerpts from books that highlight her points (which honestly began to feel like filler — in the chapter on Dialogue she inserts a seven page excerpt from Scott Spencer's A Ship Made of Paper), not one is from a popular or "genre" novel. She makes a few comments about how when she was young she read everything voraciously, "big crappy novels" and "childhood classics" - before she discovered there were "good books" out there.
She never names any of those "big crappy novels" or "childhood classics" that were so unworthy of her attention, but you can infer quite a bit from what she doesn't mention. Like most writers writing books like this, she ends it with a list of her personal "books you must read," and there is a lot of high-falutin' literature (Balzac, Calvino, Marquez, Franzen) a sampling of the usual classics (Dickens, Austen, Dostoevsky, Flaubert, Hemingway), but the only book that could be remotely considered a modern genre novel is John Le Carré's A Perfect Spy.
So Prose doesn't have much use for science fiction or fantasy or thrillers or adventure novels or any of that pop culture stuff. Fine. Everyone has their comfort zone. I'm still willing to read what an accomplished writer has to say.
However, this book, subtitled A Guide for People Who Love Books and For Those Who Want to Write Like Them, is really not much of a guide at all and contains very little writer's advice. It's mostly just Francine Prose's views on literature and what makes for good writing. Her observations are detailed and educated, but it's a lot like reading the MFA or English lit classes that she talks about teaching. Her chapters consist mostly of examples of things writers need to do well, and lengthy excerpts from some highly literary work that does it well. I knew this book was probably not for me after the third excerpt from a book that I've literally never heard of.
Like most writer-teachers on the MFA circuit, she basically teaches what she, personally, knows and loves, so this is a great book if you really like Francine Prose's writing, or you love the same sorts of books she loves, but I wonder what she says to the eager young student who tells her he wants to write sci-fi?
Her chapters are titled Close Reading, Words, Sentences, Paragraphs, Narration, Character (not "Characters," note), Dialogue, Details, Gesture, Learning from Chekhov (yes, there is an entire chapter about how much you can learn from Chekhov), and Reading for Courage.
There seems to be something missing: Plot.
Prose does use the word "plot" a few times — it's this thing that holds all the important stuff together. I'm almost certain she's the sort of writer who looks down on writers who start with a story and just want to entertain the reader.
Maybe I am mistaken and Francine Prose actually loves space opera and epic fantasies or detective mysteries, but I suspect she'd probably turn up her nose at the likes of Tolkien or Heinlein, and is baffled at grown-ups who read Harry Potter.
I mostly read genre fiction, but I do have some appreciation for the high-falutin' literary stuff too. More recently, I've been reading a lot more classic and lit-fic, and I'll tell all my fellow fantasy and science fiction fans that you will enjoy this stuff more when you catch the allusions that really good genre writers drop into their works.
But, I find Francine Prose's vision quite narrow, not even acknowledging this other dimension of reading and writing which draws people to books.
To be honest, I found the author Q&A in the addendum, in which she speaks rather critically and honestly about the publishing industry and MFA programs, to be more interesting than the book itself.
Verdict: Reading Like a Writer is about how to read like the writer who wrote this book. Read it if you share Francine Prose's tastes (check out her bibliography in the back); skip it if you're expecting any kind of comprehensive survey of literature or useful writers' advice. 4/10.
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