At one point in my life, I thought I was destined to be a writer: a writer of fiction, that is. It took me an embarrassingly long time to realize that writing fiction was not my forte. I still love to write, but it took the direction of literary criticism (in college) and now, blogging about books.
Bloggers near and far have mentioned, at various times in the life of my book blogging career, the writing help book Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose (first published 2006). Subtitled “A guide for people who love books and for those who want to write them,” it was just the literary criticism reminder that I needed to retrain my reading. It reminded me to look at literature – both classics and modern literature – as the writer I’ve always dreamed of becoming. Just what, about a work of fiction, makes it a specimen of great writing?
Prolific novelist Francine Prose examines classic works of literature – both new and old – with a critical eye. She examines the word choice, sentence structure, paragraphing choices, narration techniques, methods of developing characters, the significance of dialogue, details that make a work sincere, and the gestures that add or detract from a scene. As she quotes from the great works, we come to believe her initial claim: there is no such thing as rules when it comes to what makes writing good writing.
Literature not only breaks the rules, but makes us realize that there are none. (page 250; emphasis in original)
I was fascinated to see favorite scenes from favorite novels broken down and analyzed for why they are so powerful, and I loved her emphasis on the need for close reading: slowing down to consider word choice, sentence structure, details, and so forth. (She does reveal general plots for some stories and novels; I’d read most of them, but if you shy away from “spoilers” you may want to be aware of that.)
I think the best testament of the effect of Ms Prose book was that, after I’d read just a few chapters, I picked up Emile Zola’s Germinal and was immediately blown away by the sentence and paragraph structures, word choice, and details. I could apply what Ms Prose was suggesting as I read my next classic book. Because of the wonderful experience it has been to read Germinal with these details in mind, I’m determined to keep this book in my regular reading rotation: it’s one that demands frequent rereads.
I’d suggest that, as the subtitle suggests, Reading Like a Writer has an audience in both readers and writers. I think readers will be impressed with the ways that it helps one read a text, and want-to-be writers may pick up some ideas from the masters. Because each chapter focuses clearly on one aspect of close reading, it’s not necessary to read it in order; one can pick and choose where to begin. As a whole, it’s a masterpiece of literary criticism and writing advice.
I could go on praising this book for hours. There is something so satisfying about the emphasis on classic and literary authors. It reminds me why I’ve developed a focus on the classics for my current reading goals, and I loved that. And although I still don’t have any fiction stewing in my mind, waiting to be written, there are plenty more masterful works out there that I’m dying to read.
I’ll leave you with one more quote, this from Ms Prose’s introduction about close reading.
Readers of this book will notice that there are writings to whom I keep returning: Chekhov, Joyce, Austen, George Eliot, Kafka, Tolstoy, Flannery O’Connor, Katherine Mansfield, Nabokov, Heinrich von Kleist, Raymond Carver, Jane Bowles, James Baldwin, Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant – the list goes on and on. They are the teachers to whom I go, the authorities I consult, the models that still help to inspire me with the energy and courage it takes to sit down at a desk each day and resume the process of learning, anew, to write. (page 12)