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!