Laura's Reviews > Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them

Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose
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Sep 07, 08

bookshelves: non-fiction
Read in September, 2008

According to Francine Prose, creative writing cannot, in fact, be taught, but would-be writers can learn by studying the masters -- among others, Bruce Wagner, Jonathan Franzen, Alice Munro, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Scott Spencer. Prose is a proponent of New Criticism -- the philosophy that works can be understood only by reading of the work as an entity unto itself, and not by reference to external indicia, like the author's life or political beliefs. In keeping with that philosophy, Prose selects passages that she considers to be prime examples of effective writing, encouraging readers to linger over the words and savor them, rather than speed reading, and to read closely, with careful attention to each word and phrase (a technique you might have encountered as "close reading").

Above all, Prose admires the well-wrought sentence, the result of a painstaking, thoughtful use of language, which in turn she likens to painting or composing music. To show readers how to appreciate the writer's craft, Prose highlights passages from various authors, examining closely how their language creates characterization, rhythm, or mood. Though you might be a bit dubious about this approach at the beginning of this book (didn't we learn how to do this close reading stuff a while ago, in school?), Prose manages to excite, not bore, with her explication of how to discern the many minute decisions that authors have to make with every word, and how those decisions shape a work and a reader's reaction to the plot and characters. By the end, I was eager to go and read many of the books on the list of reading she considers essential -- her "Books to Be Read Immediately."

Of course, as with all such lists, people will take issue with inclusion of certain books and exclusion of others. Some people (I'm talking to you, Bookslut) have criticized this book for its undue attention to "dead white men," presumably because Prose is overly taken with the likes of John Cheever, Charles Dickens, and Anton Chekhov. This criticism is, not to put too fine a point on it, really fucking stupid. I'm all for inclusion and diversity, but good writing is good writing. And yes, Prose focuses mainly on white men, but she also pays close and extended attention to Jane Austen, ZZ Packer, Louisa May Alcott, Mavis Galant, Tatyana Tolstaya, Diane Johnson, and James Baldwin.

On the whole, Prose provides an entertaining and wise take on why good writing can move a reader.
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Comments (showing 1-4 of 4) (4 new)

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message 1: by Mark (last edited Sep 07, 2008 05:42PM) (new)

Mark Desrosiers Prose is right-on about "creative writing" (wow, I really hate that phrase) classes: just an expensive way for would-be writers to build social capital while engaging in talk therapy. Plus: would anyone even bother to read Melville or Dickinson or Austen today if those writers had acquired an M.F.A. in Creative Writing? Reading widely and living a life (even a cloistered neurotic life) seem like better writing instruction by far. MFA's always struck me as an embarrassing degree for a writer to have...




message 2: by Laura (last edited Sep 07, 2008 06:05PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Laura Prose actually does laugh a bit when she thinks about “Kafka enduring the seminar in which his classmates inform him that, frankly, they just don’t believe the part about the guy waking up one morning to find he’s a giant bug.” McSweeney's Joke Book of Book Jokes also has two pretty funny pieces touching on that same subject -- one imagining Joyce's writing group and another imagining Homer's.

(In re-reading this review, I just realized I use "craft" about every other word. This is why I need a copy editor.)


message 3: by Don Incognito (last edited Jun 02, 2009 11:07PM) (new)

Don Incognito Kudos to you for noticing that Prose likes New Criticism, which I suspected after 15 pages or so. You must be an English major, or at least have a liberal arts education. Not that New Criticism should be taken too seriously.


message 4: by Don Incognito (last edited Jun 02, 2009 11:13PM) (new)

Don Incognito Mark wrote: "Prose is right-on about "creative writing" (wow, I really hate that phrase) classes: just an expensive way for would-be writers to build social capital while engaging in talk therapy. Plus: would a..."

There is apparently a practical use for an MFA: it can allow you to get a degree for writing a novel. That's how my last CW prof got her M.F.A. at New York University.


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