Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose

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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)

Reviewed on September 1, 2011

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • The writing aspect is the one point of view I never do seem to be able to rid myself of when reading a book, which is both a blessing and a curse honestly. There are times when I just want to enjoy a story, but can’t because of the writing, and vice versa. However, I think overall I wouldn’t give up being able to see like I do.

    • Amanda » that’s awesome to have that talent. I love great writing, but I admit, sometimes I do like to read for fun and I don’t think about the writing, or it doesn’t bother me… other times, I irritates me a lot. I liked this book becasue it reminded me of the things I already know about why good writing is so good. It was a fun trip through some wonderful classics.

  • I listened to part of this on audio once. I’m not even sure why I didn’t finish, but it might have been because it was from the library. Anyway, what I heard I loved. I have never wanted to be a writer, pretty much always being aware that I’m not good at writing, and it makes my brain want to explode, but I loved the way she dissected some great works of literature. I’ll have to go and see if my library still has it so I can finish it.

    • Shelley » I think this would be hard on audio — because she has so many quotes from other books! But I do hope you get back to it. I agree, I too loved how she examined great works of literature! Perfect for a classics lover.

  • Sometimes I miss college and having a good professor help me see what was really going on in a novel, to awaken me to what the writer’s doing with word choice, structure. I’ve never been interested in this book (some idea of Francine Prose as a snob, or something) but…gosh, I wish I could grab a copy right now, to rediscover that feeling of being instructed through a reading. There are so many books I’ve read in the past few years that I’ve only partially understood, and I think an annual refresher in “how to read” would help me out.

    • Ellen » this is the best book I’ve read since college that got me in to that “instructed through a reading” mood, much like I loved so much in college too. I do hope you can read this some time. It was “refreshing.”

  • I own this one and can’t wait to read it. I’m heartened that you loved it so much — and got so much out of reading it. 🙂

    • Jillian » I really did enjoy it. Keep in mind there are spoilers. I know you hate that. For me, it was mostly for works I have read or don’t plan on reading. But spoilers never bug me, so not sure how you’d react to the plot points she does sometimes mention….

  • I listened to the audio for this last year and enjoyed it quite a bit. What was especially cool for me was that I happened to be reading some Flannery O’Connor at the time and she talks so much about O’Connor that I was able to appreciate those stories all the more.

  • I have this on my shelf and was curious how much I would actually get from it given that I’ve never really dreamed of being a writer (of fiction anyway) at all. Glad to hear it is so fantastic!

    • Amy » I think it’s perfect for readers, not just writers. It really helped me remember to consider WHY a book is so well written. I loved picking up a classic novel and reading it after I’d read a little of this book!

  • In the numerous book groups to which I belong, I frequently hear the criticism or compliment, depending on your point of view, that I look at a book differently than the rest of the group because of my training. Makes me wonder how exactly they are looking at books if not taking the writing into account?!

    • Kristen Knox » I must admit that sometimes I do read a modern fiction novel just for the story, turning the pages without thinking. But I do love to read classics, and I find it so rewarding when the writing is satisfying and makes it so wonderful. I agree — not a problem to be reading for the wonderful writing!!

  • I read this one maybe two years ago, and I remember really being impressed by it. Now that I am trying to read more classics, I should revisit it — I’d probably get more out of it!

  • Being a writer and an editor can be a curse if you are a reader. I see typos, and awkward wording, etc. Of course, it’s sweet when you find truly flawless writing like that on this article. 🙂

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