Taka'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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Oct 09, 2011

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bookshelves: iu-fall-2011, writing_reference
Read from October 02 to 07, 2011

Better the second time around--

Reading Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer the second time was a very different experience from reading it four years ago when I didn’t know much about the craft of writing. When I read it the first time, I didn’t find the book to be of any practical value. As a beginning writer, her assertions like “there are no general rules, only individual examples to help point you in a direction in which you might want to go,” only confused me and I didn’t know what to take away from the examples she gave. If there were no rules, I thought, what was she trying to say with those examples? When she says, “if a gesture is not illuminating, simply leave it out…” (229), isn’t that a rule?

It didn’t really help that I had no good grasp of “rules” of fiction. I was working on my first novel on my own and had no idea what “craft” there was other than obscure vocabulary and niceties of arcane grammar. So I put down the book thinking I gained no useful insight from reading it, as my one-sentence review from that time reads: “Doesn’t say much…”

Now that I’m wiser, though, I can see what Prose is saying. I do see the benefit of reading works of the masters closely and learning from them. I do believe that the “rules” can be broken and reading widely shows us colorful ways to do that. And I actually understand and am impressed by the examples Prose cites.

But I object to Prose’s insistence that “literature not only breaks the rules, but makes us realize that there are none” (250). Because contrary to her repeated claims, there are rules in fiction for engaging the reader more effectively. There are rules simply because certain things work better to immerse us in the world of stories. Whether it’s due to our physiology—our brains are wired to prefer concrete images over abstract ones and pay attention to conflict—or social—as in life we like quirky or strong-willed characters in fiction over weak, passive characters—isn’t important. What is important is that there are rules—or principles—for engaging the reader better.

I do, however, believe that blindingly sticking to the rules can be detrimental to the writer’s growth. When the writer knows why certain rules are taught and is conscious of the reasons behind them, the writer is in a much better position, because he or she can break them at will to produce certain effects. And that is why, ideally, these rules should be taught as conditionals (“if…then…” statements) and not as imperatives. So instead of “give a motive to the main character,” it should be “if you want to make the story engaging, give a motive to the main character.” If you are not interested in writing an engaging story, you’re of course free to break it. Or if you’re interested in making a point about something by not give a motive, then by all means break it with the knowledge that it’d probably make for a little bit less engaging read. The point is these conditional rules are by nature for a specific purpose, and if they don’t serve the needs of the writer, they should be ignored.
Prose mainly cites Chekhov’s stories to conclude that there are no rules in literature, but all Chekhov proves, contra Prose, is that he had different goals in mind when it came to his stories: “Artistic literature is called so because it depicts life as it really is. Its aim is truth—unconditional and honest.” And this is only one view of literature. Other writers may have different philosophies and write differently than Chekhov. One could easily imagine a writer who does not break the rules of fiction while making a unique point in his or her stories. In other words, Chekhov broke rules for a reason, and that does not prove there are no rules.

In her uncritical adoration of Chekhov, Prose seems to fall victim to precisely the kind of blindness she urges us to fend against: she assumes everyone should subscribe to Chekhov’s philosophy of literature. For example, she offers one of Chekhov’s stories to make the following claim about motivation: “ the bottom line of the fiction workshop is motivation… all this is based on the comforting supposition that things, in fiction as in life, are done for a reason.” Or about change: “The point is that lives go on without change, so why should fiction insist that major reverses should always, conveniently, occur?” In these instances, she is presupposing Chekhov’s philosophy of literature—that it should depict life as it really is—and doesn’t realize that fiction “insists” on certain things like motivation and change because it doesn’t want to depict life as it is, because not everyone subscribes to Chekhov’s view of literature. We focus on motivation and change in the workshop because stories with those elements tend to be more engaging to read, and they are important to bring up so the student writers can learn them and make their stories as engaging as possible if that’s what they want. But Chekhov wasn’t interested in simply telling an engaging story; he wanted to depict life as it really is, and for that purpose, he chose to ignore the rules of good storytelling.

So whenever Prose makes an assertion about there being no rules, I take her to mean that there are no hard-and-fast rules, that a good writer should be cognizant of the reasons behind those rules. Otherwise, telling a beginning writer that there are no rules is misleading and ultimately confusing (as it did for me). Just as a practitioner of martial arts masters the art by learning the rules first, so do writers. The conditional rules of good storytelling and good writing must be learned first before one can break them effectively. The danger here lies in learning them blindly without keeping in mind that they are conditional rules, and not categorical imperatives.

All in all, while I agree wholeheartedly with Prose’s insistence to read like a writer, her conclusions about literature and rules of fiction are skewed by her uncritical espousal of Chekhov and potentially misleading. If anything, literature tells us not that rules don’t exist, but that these rules are malleable and can be broken effectively in a variety of fascinating ways.
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