Reading Like A Writer

I’ve been working my way through the Francine Prose book, Reading Like A Writer, partly at least because my interest was piqued by Stefanie’s and Dorothy’s intriguing posts on it. When two of my favourite readers in the blogworld start to wonder why a theory of reading isn’t quite hitting the spot, then I start to feel curious. The only other book I’ve read by Prose is the brilliant The Lives of the Muses, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s a series of biographical and literary accounts of – as you’d guess – some of the great female artistic muses, and I found it a sparklingly intelligent book. Reading Like A Writer is as fluent and readable as I was expecting, but I understand Dorothy’s and Stefanie’s reservations. As a reading approach intended to instruct and enlighten would-be authors, I do wonder whether it has some fatal flaws.

Prose’s proposition is that writers can learn by studying wonderful examples of writing, and this at the micro level of the text – from picking the right word, to constructing the perfect sentence and choosing the exact moment to mark a new paragraph. Well, that’s as far as I’ve got. There are chapters on narration, character and dialogue to come. To illustrate her points, Prose picks some glorious examples from great writers like Alice Munroe, Raymond Carver, Rebecca West and Tim O’Brien. I have to confess that I am a bit of a quote-skipper at times. I fear that they are only going to repeat the point someone is making rather than develop it, and so my eyes tend to stray ahead. But in this book the quotes are really some of the best bits. In many ways this is Prose’s intention – she wants us to linger over the delicious rightness of these author’s creative choices. The problem is she thinks that studying these examples will prove instructive, and I’m not so sure about that. I do think that writers learn by reading great authors but the process is a peculiar one of osmosis, by means of which the rhythm and tempo of elegant prose, the organization of plot and character, and the structural shapeliness of fiction are transmitted unwittingly into the bloodstream. As Prose rightly points out, it’s not possible to create rules that can be unwaveringly held in creative writing, as most of the greats break every rule you’re ever likely to tentatively construct. But the alternative, and the outcome of a show-and-admire method, is the simple injunction to be brilliant. To just come up with the stellar descriptive phrase, the stunningly apt word, the machiavellian plot twist.

I’m not a creative writer, so I don’t feel like the target market for this book, but I did connect with what Prose was saying about finding the perfect sentence. As an academic writer I spend a lot of time sculpting away at sentences, trying to get them balanced and lucid and yet full of subterranean implications. I also have the most enormous trouble with opening and closing sentences – I can wait for days before a reasonably sufficient one comes along. So I was very interested in the advice Prose quotes from Hemingway. ‘All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.’ Now that struck me as very profound, as the other thing I spend a lot of time doing is asking myself whether or not a sentence of analysis is true. It’s all too easy to get carried away with analysis, and to veer off into decorative ornamentation, and outlandish extrapolation, and I’m a big fan of reality checks. Does what I’m saying really apply to this text? I’ll ask myself; is it really true to make that statement? It further intrigued me, then, that Prose takes issue with Hemingway and tut-tuts at him because ‘he never quite explains what “true” means.’ Which I thought was rich coming from someone who is explaining what artists have done after the event, rather than explaining how they come to do it in the first place.

After yesterday’s posts on authorial intention it struck me that what Prose is doing in this book is finding moments when an author’s intent and effect coincide exactly. But she means this only in the most technical sense. Her reading of these texts is a slow and generous process of accompaniment as she details the writer’s cleverness in provoking responses in their readers. Look how the author makes us jump here, or leads us into a different idea, or changes perspective! But as I was saying yesterday, that’s only the bottom most layer of a reading. We read first to have a reaction to a book, to be moved, to be impassioned in a straightforward way. But we reread books that present us with all kinds of frustratingly brilliant ambiguities and uncertainties, we reread books to see how they break their own rules, how they internally contradict themselves, how they produce one effect whilst seeming to strive for something completely different. Good readers of books are not the ideal readers that authors might choose to have, and that Prose is suggesting we might be. Good readers are often subversive and challenging readers, who refuse to take the meaning of a narrative at face value, who remain awkward and uncompromising, who insist on digging below the shiny surface of the text to unearth its less palatable, less saccharine undercurrents. That’s what makes a reading interesting, and it is in no way incompatible with a respectful and celebratory approach to a novel. We don’t have to be complicit with a novel to admire it, we don’t have to believe everything it says. Undoubtedly the technical prowess of a novel adds to its strengths, but tracing the steps of its construction is not always the most revealing or rewarding way of detailing its brilliance.

However, I’m saying this as one of those uncompromising readers of novels, rather than someone who was ever capable of writing one, and I am very interested to know what writers who have read this book think of it. Does it help elucidate the mysteries of creative composition? I’m looking forward to the chapter on dialogue as that was always my greatest downfall, and I’m intrigued to know whether or not I’ll feel enlightened by the end of it. I’ll let you know!

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14 thoughts on “Reading Like A Writer

  1. I think that before the desire to learn from a writer comes the desire to be inspired by them. I experience a kind of pen-envy whenever I read a particulary well-crafted passage and then I want to try to figure out how the author did it. As for Hemingway and truth, like you imply of Zola and realism in your last piece, I always felt that Hemingway’s version of truth was a bit dubious. That hasn’t stopped me from becoming breathless at so many of his passages, so perhaps these are examples of where he puts his money where his mouth is.
    This is another passage that inspres me: “We read first to have a reaction to a book, to be moved, to be impassioned in a straightforward way. But we reread books that present us with all kinds of frustratingly brilliant ambiguities and uncertainties, we reread books to see how they break their own rules, how they internally contradict themselves, how they produce one effect whilst seeming to strive for something completely different.”

  2. I like how you tie this in with authorial intent. I know writers work hard on their word choice and sentences and paragraphing, but I wonder how much of it is inspiration and how much thoughtful, conscious choice? I’ve made it through the narration and character chapters and they have turned out to be much better than these first three.

  3. Great stuff, Litlove (as usual). I like the idea that a book like Prose’s exists, but have doubts as to its ultimate value. Hemingway’s line strikes me as the nub of the matter, as far as writing is concerned. We are all so preoccupied these days with style, that we sometimes overlook the fact that what we seek out and what dazzles in the written word is truth and clarity.

  4. Just as a datapoint, I was ambivalent about the book, although — ironically — I don’t think I could say why in detail. (From memory, some of the early chapters were stating the obvious a bit too much, and some of the later chapters were being a bit too definitive about what literature is/should be.)

  5. This book is popping up all over the place. I may have to break down and buy it. I’m curious what writers think about it as well. I feel like either a person has a knack to write (I don’t–not in that way anway) or they don’t. I suppose they agonize over sentences, though, too. I just have a hard time imagining Jane Austen pondering word choice-though surely she must have. By the way, I have Prose’s book on Muses–and I am looking forward to reading it. Glad to hear it is good!

  6. Ian – Ahhh! I see! I must say I hadn’t thought of that inspirational aspect, being given myself to feeling overawed and insufficient in the face of great work (that’s why I’m a critic – I can shine their shoes). Thank you for that – very enlightening. Stefanie – I’m glad to know it’s going to improve as it goes along; helps me keep returning to it 🙂 And I think the brilliance of authors is only increased by their not being conscious of every little thing. LK – speaking that truth, no matter what the context or the discourse, is always a very powerful thing to do. Couldn’t agree more. Niall – very interesting. I’ll be bearing your point in mind as I read on. Danielle – I’m so looking forward to hearing what you think of the Muse book, and I’m sure you would find this interesting. I love the thought of Jane Austen laughing away to herself as she fills page after page of effortless, delightful writing! Dovegreyreader – aren’t those blog coincidences interesting! I’ve often done that, started looking for a book only to find lots of people are already reading and talking about it. I’ll be looking forward very much to your post on it!

  7. “Good readers of books are not the ideal readers that authors might choose to have” — I love that idea. There can be many definitions of “good,” right? Your point makes a lot of sense, that Prose is a “good” reader in the sense that she’s obedient and appreciative (most of the time).

  8. Pingback: Reading like a Writer II « Of Books and Bicycles

  9. I haven’t read the book yet (so my commenting may a risky endeavour!) but I plan to and I am a writer of fiction so her premise is interesting. I want to agree with her 100% that the best way to ‘learn’ how to write is to read, admire and finally, analyse other fiction to get at the ways that writing “works”. This is probably the only sure thing that a writer can do to attempt to improve their craft. Yet, I wonder if the problem is that this recipe is a completely personal and individual one. What one writer learns from one piece of writing may be completely different from what someone else does…I wrote before about this idea that no one will ever experience a book the way that I do. And I believe that. Similar reactions, yes, but never exactly the same. I believe that reading and writing are such profoundly individual recreations that guidelines about them, however beautiful, instructive or enlightening, can only ever fail.

  10. litlove – I’g tagging you for the “Eight random things about me” meme. No obligation. The rules are in a recent post on my site, and I suspect to have read some of the other lists that have been posted.

  11. Dorothy – SO many definitions of ‘good’, just like there are so many definitions of ‘valuable’, or at least, so many different ways to create value. I think we need to bear exactly that in mind whenever we’re dealing with the arts! Verbivore – that’s also a beautiful point. I agree wholeheartedly with what you say. Every reading experience is unique, and that’s a wonderful and intriguing thing. Brad – thank you so much for tagging me! I’ll be over to your site immediately to read your list!

  12. Lots of writers display influences of style, often most obvious in early work, so they clearly study and are inspired by earlier writers. Yet, there has to be something else. A vast number of people read and many critics study in depth, yet few of them turn into literary writers, though lots of them might wish to. So, studying great writers, and good writers, doesn’t mean you can become one. I never got beyond the odd poem and I know you mentioned your skills with dialogue as needing a bit of polishing. I’ll just have to stick to this style I guess!

  13. Pingback: >Reading Like A Reader | Four Deer Oak

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