20.7.12

'Reading Like A Writer' by Francine Prose

'Reading Like a Writer' by Francine Prose is a book I picked up on a whim in Waterstones in Oxford - I had one of those classic 'ah, this book is for me' moments, when you see something and immediately take it to the counter to pay. Bravo on both the title and the cover, whoever came up with those: 'A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them'...which includes all the book bloggers in the world, for a start, am I riiggghhttt? Great branding, and a great section of society to target for free publicity, so hats off all round.

The structure of this book is that Francine Prose, a writer with the most fortuitous name imaginable ( I hope it just happens to be her name, like Lisa Maffia), breaks down the various aspects of good writing down into manageable chunks, such as 'Close Reading', 'Words', 'Sentences' etc. She then talks about her own writing, her own teaching experiences and other books that do this particular thing really well, giving examples and then deconstructing them for the reader. 

In tone, this book reminded me, oddly, of 'Molotov's Magic Lantern' by Rachel Polonsky, which I video-reviewed earlier this year, which is kinda funny as they actually look vaguely alike, although it's likely more that they are both female academics/writers of a similar age than that they are actually the same person. What I really mean is that the style is easy to read, very informative and perhaps the teensiest bit dry if you're not really into the subject about which they are talking. I was, however, so it's fine.

Good things about this book were Prose's obvious teaching experience, which I found to be both interesting and illuminating, and her advocacy of attention to detail. Of the writing guides I've read, structural devices and the necessity of a bangin' first chapter are usually the closest areas of study, so I found it quite refreshing to read:
'The well-made sentence transcends time and genre. A beautiful sentence is a beautiful sentence, regardless of when it was written, or whether it appears in a play or a magazine article. Which is one of the many reasons why it's pleasurable and useful to read outside of one's own genre. The writer of lyrical fiction or of the quirkiest, most free-form stream-of-consciousness novel can learn by paying close attention to the sentences of the most logical author of the exactingly reasoned personal essay.'
I think that's perfect advice: read everything, don't be a snob, sweat the small stuff and endeavour to make all your writing beautiful. I was quite moved by that sentiment and have tried to apply it to all my types of writing since, including this blog (gee, thanks for noticing!). I thought the chapters on first sentences and paragraphing were great as they provided a great range of pointers to try immediately; the dialogue chapter was the weakest, as I found the examples given quite obscure and not overly declarative or compelling. But I guess a lot of that will be down to reading taste, as if I've not been moved by a paragraph before, it's inevitably less illuminating when picked out for display, so you might find different.

There's a chapter called 'Learning from Chekhov' which, whilst dallying about with teachings concludes that great writers are unknowable and flout the rules that others follow, also reminded me a little of the 'Lesser Known Chekhovian Techniques' from McSweeney's, but not to its (hilarious) detriment; this is then followed by a chapter called 'Reading from Courage', which I found useful and unique amongst writing guides. 
'When we think about how many terrifying things people are called on to do every day as they fight fires, defend their rights, perform brain surgery, give birth, drive on the freeway, and wash skyscraper windows, it seems frivolous, self-indulgent, and self-important to talk about your writing as an act that requires courage. What could be safer than sitting at your desk, lightly tapping a few keys, pushing your chair back, and pausing to see what marvellous tidbit of art your brain has brought forth to amuse you?
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.
All of which brings up yet another reason to read. Literature is an endless source of courage and confirmation.'
Isn't that great? And ringing a tonne of bells in your head, as it is in mine? I feel endless kindness to Francine Prose for writing that down. It also ends with a list of 'Books to be Read Immediately', which I smugly ticked off, pretending to myself that I've read more than is perhaps actually true.

This is a good addition to any writer's-guide shelf, and hopefully reading and writing about it will, someday, result in some of the good practices rubbing off and enhancing my own writing from the outside in. Fingers crossed.

Title: 'Reading like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them'
Author: Francine Prose
Date of Publication: US, 2006; UK, 2012
Publisher: US, HarperCollins; UK, Union Books
Format: 268 pages, heavy paperback, and I bought it.


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