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Book Review: "Reading Like a Writer," by Francine Prose
It may seem like ridiculously obvious advice, but it’s one of those bits of ridiculously obvious advice that bears repeating over and over again: In order to be a great, or even good, writer, you have to read. Read a lot. And read good writing. In Francine Prose’s recent bestseller "Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them," she suggests going a step further and reading in a more careful, thoughtful way. After all, what good is recognizing that Virginia Woolf wrote beautifully complex sentences if you don’t understand how she pulled them off?
Prose takes the reader chapter by chapter through various elements of writing that can be examined upon a close reading of a text. And they’re not all as simple or common as character arc or the use of active verbs. For example, how often have you thought about paragraph breaks? How does a paragraph break affect a reader, and how should you decide when to break them? I get the feeling that most writers, especially new writers, don’t think about this at all. If they did, they might say something like “they just break naturally” or “when a new thought begins.”
But the point of Prose’s observations is that books and stories don’t write themselves. Every letter and comma is the result of a decision by a writer—a decision that could have been made differently and changed the meaning of an entire sentence, passage, or story. Try taking a piece of your own writing and playing with the paragraph breaks. Free yourself from the constraints of your first draft; you can always restore it. See how breaking differently makes the text read differently. As Prose puts it, “merely thinking about ‘the paragraph’ puts us ahead of the game.” She makes the following lovely analogy: “The paragraph could be understood as a sort of literary respiration, with each paragraph as an extended—in some cases, very extended—breath.”
It’s difficult to describe a book such as this by quoting its author, since her entire purpose is to convince you to read other authors. You may not see a paragraph as a breath; you may see it as a story or a question or a piece of information. But in order to discover what role paragraphs play in your own writing, it’s useful to read as many other writers as possible, and stop to see what paragraphs mean to their work.
Prose cites mostly older, classic works (though some are fairly obscure), and some more contemporary examples would have been nice—but they also would have caused a nightmarish situation in her publisher’s permissions department. The classics, of course, have plenty to teach, and studying them is less likely to make you think, “But I don’t want to copy [insert dead white male here].” But in the rather overwhelming “Books To Be Read Immediately” list at the end, you’ll find Denis Johnson’s "Jesus’ Son" and Alice Munro’s "Selected Stories" alongside Austin and Hemingway.
Let’s say you’re writing a thriller, and the last thing you want to do is be seen as just another Dan Brown wanna-be, so you’re staying as far away as possible from anything remotely related to "The Da Vinci Code." That doesn’t mean you can’t attempt to emulate its page-turning style. Read it closely, and look at the paragraphs. The sentences. The chapter breaks. Read other thrillers you like as well, so you’ll feel less fear of copying one particular author… but if you have your own story to tell, and your own style, that won’t happen anyway. Good writers can learn from one another’s work without committing plagiarism or losing their own voices.
In the opening chapters of "Reading Like a Writer," I found myself frustrated that Prose was bombarding me with examples without providing quite enough explanation of why she chose them. But, as she might have predicted, this bothered me less as I continued to read—because I found myself more and more able to follow her advice and read carefully (a nice experience for someone who’s used to rushing to finish a chapter before the next subway stop).
A few final notes:
* Learning to read carefully doesn’t mean you have to do it all the time. You can and should still lose yourself in a good book without stopping to analyze the effectiveness of its use of gesture. But just as architects can both study the construction of great buildings and admire their beauty, writers can study the construction of great works, and apply some of the techniques they see to their own writing, without giving up the joy of reading. If you want only the latter, you’re not willing to work hard enough to be a successful writer.
* As its subtitle suggests, "Reading Like a Writer" is not only a book for writers. I’ve recommended it to friends who are avid readers, because people who read a lot and like to discuss what they read are also eager to understand why they like what they like. Prose’s writing is accessible and engaging, not pedantic or dry. She’s expressing, more than anything, her love of great literature, and that’s not a feeling exclusive to writers.
* Francine Prose really, really likes Chekhov’s short stories. She devotes an entire chapter to why she likes him so much, one reason being that he was skillful enough to break every “rule” she’s ever heard of in writing, including some she’s mentioned previously in her very own book. I agree that he’s a master of the short story; you should find out for yourself. If you already know you aren’t a Chekhov fan, skip that chapter. But read the rest. And then go read all the books on that “Books To Be Read Immediately” list.
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