Francine Prose confesses—and professes—a fundamental truth of writing on page two of her recent book on writing, Reading Like A Writer: “Like most, maybe all, writers, I learned to write by writing and, by example, from books.” True and simple enough. But when MFA programs are legion and pedagogical anxieties run high, the teaching of writing has become anything but simple; moreover, consensus as to the best method is rarely achieved. Prose advocates close reading, a straightforward approach that focuses on the text itself rather than context or theory.
Prose elaborates that “In the ongoing process of becoming a writer, I read and reread the authors I most loved. I read for pleasure, first, but also more analytically, conscious of style, of diction, of how sentences were formed and information was being conveyed, how the writer was structuring a plot, creating characters, employing detail and dialogue.” This becomes the central tenant of Prose’s tutorial, and she spends the next several chapters closely reading a multitude of excerpts for structure and style, pulling apart paragraphs like taffy. Prose’s technique encourages getting one’s hands sticky with the stuff of language, and her flourish and respect for craft is always evident.
The book’s approach has much to do with Prose’s astute observations in the classroom. She understands, for example, that the implicit demand for generating “literary criticism,” often positioned in one theoretical camp or another, can interfere with the more simple, though often less straightforward, pleasure of reading. She suggests that “possibly because of the harsh judgments [students] felt required to make about fictional characters and their creators, they didn’t seem to like reading, which also made me worry for them and wonder why they wanted to become writers.” Over time, Prose adapted her teaching style in order to dwell on the text, to spark her students’ desire to write, a desire that, she believed, had been dampened by the mire of academic training.
Prose spends the next two hundred pages close reading her heap of excerpts. Dividing her efforts into specific, logical chapters, she looks at Words, Sentences, Paragraphs, Narration, Character, Dialogue, Details, and Gesture. Her examinations are exhaustive, and I think they are both to her credit and detriment. Although we get ample evidence of Prose’s brilliant textual analyses, we also get buried under it.
Early in chapter 2, “Words,” Prose unpacks the first paragraph of Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard To Find,” in nine densely-packed paragraphs of her own. They are superb, completely up to the task of demonstrating her points. But from there Prose continues for an additional fourteen pages to analyze two paragraphs of Katherine Mansfield’s “The Daughters of the Late Colonel,” the opening paragraph of Alice Munro’s “Dulse,” the opening paragraph of Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road, the opening paragraph of Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night, the paragraphs that describe when Nick Carraway first sees Daisy and Jordan in The Great Gatsby. Still within these fourteen pages, we get references to Joyce, Faulkner, and Pynchon, a discussion (but with no excerpt) of Paul Bowles’ “A Distant Episode,” and a close read of a long paragraph from Tatyana Tolstaya’s “Heavenly Flame.” As Prose confesses, “Reading this way requires a certain amount of stamina, concentration, and patience.” I would have to agree. I fear that we lose sight of Prose’s objective, which she calls a “great reward” of close reading: “the excitement of approaching, as nearly as you can hope to come, the hand of mind of the artist.” Although Prose insists that close reading can bring us closer to an artist’s textual genius and ultimately help us imitate their choices, her purpose disappears in the rampant tangles of her fervent readings.
One of the fundamental problems with Prose’s approach is that we must depend on her to summarize the story up to that point or beyond so that we can make sense of what she’s doing. Even if we’ve read The Great Gatsby (it’s been since high school for me), it’s unlikely we could focus on the particular point without Prose’s attentions. She’s urging us to be brazenly intimate with a text while forcing us to rely on her introductions. It’s clear that the approach works much better in the context of a classroom, where the focus is on one story or one book, and it might have been more effective in Prose’s book if one text had been the focus of each chapter. Prose could have more closely replicated the pedagogical approach she employs in the classroom, and we would have been far less likely to misplace our own enthusiasm for the text—or our respect for her skill in unpacking it—in the abundance of illustrations.
After reading a particularly favorite excerpt, Prose often comments that she—and the reader—can “imagine the same words grouped in far less felicitous combinations.” A couple of times she offers up a few sentences in service this end, but they’re really more glib asides than real examples of what a fledgling writer might produce. I would have found it helpful if Prose did, in fact, group the words in far less felicitous combinations so that we could see how word choice, or sentence structure, or dialogue, or gesture, for example, can be done well, as evidenced by her choice of excerpts, and also less well. To contrast these might have worked to great effect, in keeping with her insistence that to learn from literature is to teach “by positive model.”
As Prose is, ultimately, urging us to read good books as a way to learn to write, she inevitably must tell us what those good books are. This is potentially treacherous territory, full of quicksand and vertiginous precipices. I applaud her for taking the risk, even as I question her choices all the same.
Her last chapter is titled “Books to Be Read Immediately,” and its urgency is exciting, intimidating, and a bit incendiary. While we all might generally agree that Chekhov, Dostoyevsky, and Tolstoy are solid members of the canon (Prose does seem to admire the Russians and their temperamental sensibility), we might easily argue that there are authors—particularly modern and contemporary ones—that are conspicuously absent. She states early on that “Part of a reader’s job is to find out why certain writers endure. . . . You will do yourself a disservice if you confine your reading to the rising star whose six-figure, two-book contract might seem to indicate where your own work should be heading.” That’s savvy advice, but I can’t imagine why she includes nothing by Faulkner or Steinbeck or Wharton on her list. Not to mention Toni Morrison or Salman Rushdie or John Updike, all of whom are esteemed veterans, and none of whom could be characterized, dismissively as Prose’s quote implies, as “rising stars.”
Prose is, of course, entitled to her favorites, but it may be hard to entice a reader, as it might be hard to entice a student, with the virtue of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, published in 1740, simply because its epistolary format was an innovation in the newly-sprung genre of the novel. Near the end of the her book, Prose indicates that “Much of the work I’ve mentioned so far in this book might run afoul of some of today’s amateur or professional critics.” I feel that Prose is always somewhat in defense of her choices: the books she loves to read; the way she chooses to teach; the academy she decides to snub.
The more I read Reading Like a Writer, the clearer it became to me that Prose is surviving a tempestuous marriage with the academy. This ambivalence seems to have informed both this manual on writing and her most recent novel Blue Angel, an acerbic look at the insular world of college politics, and a National Book Award finalist. Apart from her writing, teaching is Prose’s livelihood, and it takes great courage—and perhaps frustration—to gnaw at the hand that feeds you. This is nowhere clearer than in the chapters that bookend those on close reading. It is here that Prose exposes and explores her own habits as a reader and a writer and candidly shares her less-than-flattering moments as a teacher. I admired her when she x-rayed the bones of Flannery’s stories, but I adored her when she confessed how graduate school flummoxed her and teaching humbled her. And although she decries the trend in writing workshops which insists on uncovering the psychological motivations of each character in order to come to terms with the story, her own revelations of the desperation and frustration she encountered while teaching were insightful, tender, and often hilarious.
In the chapter “Learning from Chekhov,” Prose talks about her experiences teaching at college two-and-a-half hours from her home, and the harrowing hours she spent waiting in the New Rochelle Trailways Station, where “half the people who were there looked like they’d happily blow my brains out on the chance of finding a couple of Valiums in my purse.” Chekhov was her ritual and her reward, and the tactics he employed in his stories challenged her convictions about writing. Her prescription to one student to avoid creating characters with similar (or the same) names was refuted by “The Two Volodya.” Her suggestion to reduce the multiple shifts in perspective in order to reduce confusion was countered by the different voices in “Gusev.” That Chekhov broke all the “rules” so masterfully, forcing Prose to reexamine the assumptions that force of habit had deemed imperative, is not extraordinary. Rather Prose’s humility and vulnerability are. They are far from the pasty mock confessions so in vogue. She demonstrates her writerly wisdom far more persuasively by exposing her ignorance and fallibility as a teacher than by her close reading.
Every great writer is a mystery, if only in that some aspect of his or her talent remains forever ineffable, inexplicable, and astonishing. The sheer population of Dickens’s imagination, the fantastic architecture Proust constructs out of minutely examined moments. We ask ourselves: How could anyone do that?
It is her awe of talent that she clearly conveys and that makes her imperative to read so compelling. I don’t think Prose’s objective is to dismantle the practice of literary criticism, although she is clearly befuddled by its preponderance, preferring to focus on the
more pedestrian, halting method of beginning at the beginning, lingering over every word, every phrase, every image, considering how it enhanced and contributed to the story as a whole. In this way, the students and I would get through as much of the text as possible—sometimes three or four, sometimes as many as ten, pages—in a two-hour class.
Prose concedes in the book, and in an insightful accompanying phone interview with Jessica Murphy of The Atlantic Monthly in June 2006, that talent can’t be taught. It seems to me that it is a precious commodity that is either present or not. (We always hope, in ourselves and in a new author, that it will be discovered in abundance.) What good reading can do is prime the pump, basically give force and edge to that which is “ineffable, inexplicable, and astonishing.” Prose insists that for those of us who want to write, our task is to read, first for pleasure, then for craft. It is elemental, and it is vital. It is the stuff from which writers are made. I agree without reservation.
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