Francine Prose. Reading Like a Writer.
Francine Prose is a marvelous writer of both novels and that neglected form, the novella. (Three Pigs in Five Days is a novella of which I'm especially fond.) She manages to be literary without drawing attention to her writing—a neat trick, given that often her language is so ironic and her descriptions so spot-on that you want to stop and savor them.
This is her book on writing, which isn’t a book on writing at all. It’s a book about “close reading,” about looking at prose in detail to see how writers achieve their effects. (Our own Tim Stretton is a major advocate of the practice, as can be seen in his reviews of what can be learned from particular books.) Close reading is how most writers learned their craft in the days before college writing courses--and those same college writing courses ought to encourage more reading along with all the writing.
On some writing forums, you will find the majority of voices claiming that they can't read when they write—either because they fear it will interfere with thinking about their own story, or because they are anxious that their prose will be—gasp!—influenced. I’ve always been baffled by both of these fears, and I was happy that to find that Ms. Prose agrees:
I’ve also heard fellow writers say that they cannot read while working on a book of their own for fear that Tolstoy or Shakespeare might influence them. I’ve always hoped they would influence me, and I wonder if I would have taken so happily to being a writer if it meant that I couldn’t read for the years it might take to complete a novel.
The chapters are topics: Words… Sentences… Paragraphs… Narration… Character… Dialogue… Details… Gesture… and two final chapters entitled Learning from Chekhov and Reading for Courage. And the chapters are exactly what they sound like—almost microscopically close reading of extracts from novels and short stories.
Now, Ms. Prose is a bit sniffy about the whole topic of Literature (note capital "L"). The extracts are mainly from Flaubert, Woolf, Babel, Austen, and others safely dead and interred in the canon—though she does stoop to include Philip Roth and John Le Carre. But she has some blind spots, too--for example, she is a little dismissive of Elmore Leonard (“highly skilled and competent but less than first-rate”). That's a judgment of his place in the canon rather than an assessment of what can be learned from reading him. I would argue that a close reading of Leonard’s dialogue would be one of the best ways to learn about subtext and sly characterization, and that aspect of his craft is valuable regardless of his standing in the pantheon of Literature.
No matter. I find her book engrossing, and the techniques she employs in looking at a text are applicable far beyond the texts she happens to choose. And, if you don't care for this sort of thing, take a look at her fiction instead.