Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer isn’t really about close reading, and it’s not really about learning to write better. It’s mostly about giving budding writers recommendations for books to read that exemplify good writing skills, and bringing some forgotten works back to the attention of general readers of literature.
The first half of the book focuses on how to do close reading (chapters 1-4) and the second half is about learning how to write from good examples. It is divided into twelve chapters:
Learning from Chekhov
Reading for Courage
Books to Be Read Immediately
Chapters 1-4 are useful if you weren’t an English or literature major, but if you were I would skip them because it’s all review. Her chapters on close reading are good for an introductory level, but if you want to read someone who blows apart your initial conceptions of what a text is about with historical background and biographical detail, I’d recommend Camille Paglia’s Break, Blow, Burn, which contains essays about 40 of the most famous poems from Shakespeare to Silvia Plath.
Back to Prose — she provides contradictory evidence for a lot of writing advice that teachers and students tend to take for granted. She makes the point that sentences and paragraphs can be as long as the author wants, as long as they make sense and are well-written. She cites the first sentence of Virginia Woolf’s essay “On Being Ill” and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Autumn of the Patriarch as examples of a long sentence and one-paragraph novel. She argues against the super-concision that happens when creative writing students are told to trim down too much, and the way that the instruction to “show, don’t tell” impacts writing:
“The warning against telling leads to a confusion that causes novice writers to think that everything should be acted out – don’t tell us a character is happy, show us how she screams “yay” and jumps up and down for joy – when in fact the responsibility of showing should be assumed by the energetic and specific use of language.”
A little narration can be used to communicate more nuanced emotions or avoid clumsy “showing”. This is related to another comment she makes in the gesture chapter about overused gestures, like sweaty palms, heart racing, et cetera:
“All of these are perfectly acceptable English sentences describing common gestures, but they feel generic. They are not descriptions of an individual’s very particular response to a particular event, but rather a shorthand for common psychic states.”
I see this in a lot of student writing. I think the hardest part about writing is to resist being lazy, trying to go past the nearest words and pick the ones that feel right. However, that might be more of a task for revision, because I feel like it would block your flow if you stopped at every word to think of the right one while writing a first draft.
The Character and Details chapters are basically what I expected them to be: “be original, be unique, blah blah blah”. Lots of good examples but not much in the way of actual help. The Dialogue chapter, though, was the best of the technique chapters. Prose talks about how characters in fiction are usually portrayed as always listening to what the other one is saying, but great writers realize that people often ignore each other while they’re talking and incorporate inattention into their dialogue.
The bit I’ll have to write down and remember from this chapter is “One mark of bad written dialogue is that it is only doing one thing, at most, at once.” We choose our words more carefully than we think we do. What we say represents us, shows some of our feelings while hiding others, conveys power plays and levels of interest. It does a lot more than pass the time or move the plot forward.
If there’s one thing I took away from this book, it was “Read Chekhov”. Prose devotes a whole chapter to things she learned about writing from Chekhov. Foremost among them is that Chekhov never judges his characters. He doesn’t show the world from his own perspective like other writers, he just shows the world as his characters see it. He also has an excellent eye for details and dialogue. She suggests this might be because Chekhov was a doctor, so he came into contact with people of all different kinds of personalities and backgrounds on the daily. Once someone asked him how he composed his stories. Chekhov picked up an ashtray and said, “This is my method of composition. Tomorrow I will write a story called ‘The Ashtray.’”
I’ve been meaning to start writing fiction again for a while, but it just doesn’t seem to have happened for whatever reason. Something broke at some point a long time ago… I’m not sure if it’s fear or simply lack of imagination but Francine Prose puts the fear aspect really well here in the “Reading for Courage” section:
“And yet most people who have tried to write have experienced not only the need for bravery but a failure of nerve as the real or imagined consequences, faults and humiliations, exposures and inadequacies dance before their eyes and across the empty screen or page. 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.”
So that covers most of the chapters, except for “Books to Be Read Immediately” which is a list of books that you “should” read, some of which are classics and some that are more obscure. This is neat for picking up the gaps in your reading list, but I wish she’d written maybe a sentence describing each one (or even markers like “great dialogue”).
Overall, this was a pretty middle-of-the-road writing book with nary a sprinkle of good advice and a whole lot of book recommendations. It’s useful for things, just not the things you’d expect. There was just one tiny aspect that I have an issue with…
Warning: rant ahead
Prose is an advocate of New Criticism, the doctrine that books are works of art that should be read word by word, not subject to political, historical, or biographic readings. It started in the 1940s and was popular for a long time, but I think it’s on the way out, because most of my professors at UCSC were New Historicist (they believed that historical context and background is necessary to gain a deeper understanding).
In the first chapter, she describes her love of reading and how she went to grad school and everybody was so obsessed with reading for politics that they didn’t seem to enjoy what they were reading (Deconstructionists, Marxists, and Feminists! Oh my!). The way she does this creates a straw man of literary theories as a whole, only naming them to dismiss them. This would be okay, but she doesn’t note her admit her own ideology (New Criticism).
This is a popular and not a critical work, so it’s likely that most of the people reading this book probably don’t know about New Criticism or New Historicism, and it makes it sound like she’s saying that her way is the normal or natural way to read literature and all the other ways of reading are a crock of academic bullshit. She says,
“You can assume that if a writer’s work has survived for centuries, there are reasons why this is so, explanations that have nothing to do with a conspiracy of academics plotting to resuscitate a zombie army of dead white males.”
This is true, the reason we don’t have older works from minorities and women is because of the way society worked, not because of an academic conspiracy. But feminist theory isn’t the only kind of theory out there, though it might be one of the most vocal. The thing that bugs me the most about this is that she’s dismissing a whole world of thought that she doesn’t seem to understand (and consequently giving her readers a pass to dismiss it too). The only thing she says about these theories is that they’re so wrapped up in the political, in thinking, they take the fun out of reading for her. Theory might not be fun, really, but it can be interesting. There’s a kind of fun to doing close reading, which she admires, and a kind of fun to theory, and they aren’t actually that different… they’re both at their heart the pleasure of intellectual stimulation. It’s just with theory you have work harder for it. For someone who professes to love literature, enough to become a literature professor, and to reject theory just seems anathema to me.
Besides that, though, I really did enjoy reading this book. The breadth of Prose’s knowledge and the quality of the examples chosen make it an entertaining read.
Books from her list that I put on my to-read list: Chekhov stories, John Cheever stories, Lolita, Madame Bovary, Jane Eyre, The Sun Also Rises, Middlemarch by George Eliot, Loving by Henry Green, Revolutionary Road, The Marquise of O–, A Perfect Spy, “Rashomon”, Cousin Bette, Dead Souls, Wise Blood, American Pastoral, King Lear, and The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.