Thursday, April 3, 2008

Francine Prose (My favorite books on writing)

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.

15 comments:

Rob in Denver said...

You know, I've read parts of that book while killing time in book stores and the library, and I just keep coming back to the irony of reading a book about reading.

Maybe it's because I read a lot anyway --- and that I'm a slow reader --- that I just don't get READING LIKE A WRITER.

Also, I'm completely on board with you on the "not reading while writing" trip. I find, if anything, reading while I'm writing keeps me excited about my work and pushes me to keep improving.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Rob--

Yeah, it is kind of an infinite regress. I mean, in your comment you were writing about my writing about reading about reading about writing. And now I'm writing about...well, you know where this is going.

But the reason I enjoyed Prose's book was because of her particular take on the passages she examines. IN many cases, she was focused on something other than what I would have highlighted, and that made me aware of how very different people's perspectives can be, even down at the craft level.

I'm a slow reader, too. But few writers I know are fast readers. I think we all tend to mutter the sentences under our breath so we can taster the rhythm.

Or maybe I just never learned to read without moving my lips.

Janet said...

Ha! I am publicly on record as saying I deliberately read people whose voices I admire in the express hope of being influenced. Sometimes a good poet can be a wonderful influence too. Let it rub off, I say.

I am a fast reader. I can't help it. I gallop through a book at breakneck pace. But usually I start again at the beginning and read more slowly, at least if the book struck me as being worthy. Then I can read more slowly. (Although some books pull me in so completely I have a great deal of difficulty reading analytically. So I charge through a second time...) Somehow my mind's ear seems to capture the cadences anyway.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Janet--

Your mind's ear is more skilled than mine.

I also re-read--I only know one writer who doesn't.

The problem is that with all the books I re-read and all the books I want to read...well, the math isn't working out well. And the math would still be bad if I doubled my reading speed!

emmadarwin said...

I love Reading Like A Writer because it is such a clear exposition of exactly the kind of reading we should be doing, and not enough of school or, worse still, university, teaches you how, or if it does teach close reading, most of the time it's looking for different things. I was stunned the other day when an Eng. Lit lecturer who's also a writer felt the need to explain the term 'backstory' to a hall-full of undergraduates. Do they really not talk about structure enough to need that term?

As for reading fiction while you're writing, it depends what you mean by 'influence', though, doesn't it? Your writerly self needs feeding, both by analytical reading, and yes, separately, by that relatively un-analytical, passionate submersion in the story that thins the skin and finds that hyper-alert state which is a reader's version of the zone.

But I don't read fiction when I'm writing a first draft because voice is one of the things that's most important in my own work. After after a mis-spent youth playing paper-games of writing parodies, I absorb and then give out writerly flavours like a chopping-board absorbs and gives out onion. What an evening's reading of my beloved Raymond Chandler did the next morning to my early-nineteenth century voice in The Mathematics of Love was not nice to read... But a first draft only goes on for a few months, and I read really well-written non-fiction for the duration, which keeps my ear in for the music of good prose.

Janet said...

David, you are SO right about the math. It's like desks: the work expands to overflow the space available. The reading expands to overflow the time available. I have a dozen physical books awaiting their turn and a reading list about 60 long. And I keep adding...

I should eliminate blog reading.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Emma--

I agree that establishing voice is critical. In fact, since I don't plot in advance of beginning a book, hearing how the opening scene sounds on the page is probably the most important thing in making the book stagger forward.

Usually reading the previous day's work is enough to hypnotize me back into the groove, no matter what I've been reading the night day before.

It's not because I'm possessed of any steadfast writerly center in the core of my being. Much the opposite. A page of Faulkner will wash Hemingway right out of my head, and vice-versa. Luckily for me, I'm equally easily influenced by my own writing.

You're right that when schools teach close reading they are usually looking for different things--and most of those things don't relate to craft.

And few college courses ever seem to read anything bad to demonstrate why it doesn't work, but that's so useful. I could only make it through a few pages of The Da Vinci Code, but backing up and re-reading the opening three pages closely to see why they didn't work for me was an important experience.

Hmm. Your comment has suggested another post.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Janet--

Yeah. When I was younger a big stack of unread books made me feel Rich! I'm rich! Bwah-ha-ha-ha!

But now the towering stacks feel as if they are getting a bit accusatory...

Alis said...

Hi David, I think I'm somewhere between you and Emma on 'voice' - I don't give up reading but there are books I won't read over breakfast (I lose the 'influence' effect easily). I didn't quite have Emma's mis-spent youth but I did notice, for the first time when I was doing my O-level English lit paper, that my essays unconsciously adopted the style of what I was writing about - Ezra Pound, Oscar Wilde, Laurie Lee... what fun!

David Isaak said...

Hi, Alis--

Except on vacations, I generally don't read fiction at breakfast. Somthing about, say, Kafka and eggs that doesn't sit well with me. So I suppose I generally have a night's sleep between reading fiction and writing it.

One of these days someone will explain to me what A-levels and O-levels are, and why levels B through N are never mentioned. And why employment ads in The Economist say things like "...the successful candidate will possess a good honours degree..."

We have honors degrees, but we don't divide them into good and bad. They only come in the one flavor.

Anonymous said...

UK honours degrees are classified thus:
First
Upper Second (often referred to as a 2:1)
Second (or 2:2)
Third

Some honours degrees also offer an Unclassified - a pass.

It is also possible to be awarded a Double First.

A 'good honours degree' is, to paraphrase the British Academy guidance to academic referees, 'a degree which demonstrates the candidate's intellectual stamina'- which is often taken to mean 2:1 and above. This can be complicated as in the case of Combined Honours degrees where, for argument's sake, the candidate followed, say,six courses, scored not so well in three of the six courses but excelled in the other three. It used to be the case that Combined Honours graduates were never told their individual scores - this would lead to much confusion.

Oh,and some institutions append all sorts of grand, usually, Latin derived, epithets to distinguish First Class degrees.

Hope that helps.
-haarland phillipps-

Tim Stretton said...

David, as you'd expect, I entirely agree with Ms Prose's approach. Reading is one of the writer's essential, if under-rated, skills. And as you say, reading rubbish can be at least as instructive as reading Tolstoy.

I don't think I could give up reading for the duration of writing a novel. Like David, I read back yesterday's work before I start today's, and that seems to be enough to kickstart the voice. But then, my voice operates in a fairly narrow register so the chances that I'll turn into James Ellroy (I wish...) without noticing are pretty slim...

David Isaak said...

Hi, Haarland--

Yes, that helps. Helps makes me glad I didn't attend school in the UK.

"Intellectual stamina" is a truly frightening concept, and I'm not sure I'd like to have mine tested.

But thanks, anyway!

David Isaak said...

Hi, Tim--

Someone needs to develop a canon of bad writing exemplars...

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