I discovered ‘Reading Like a Writer’ by Francine Prose a few years back, when I was in a bibliophilic phase, when I was collecting books on reading. I got ‘How to Read Literature Like a Professor’ by Thomas Foster, ‘How Novels Work’ by John Mullan, ‘How to Read a Novel : A User’s Guide’ by John Sutherland, ‘A History of Reading’ by Alberto Manguel and ‘The Anatomy of Bibliomania’ by Holbrook Jackson alongwith Prose’s book. As it seems to happen often with me, all these books ended up on my bookshelf unread and uncared for. I thought that I will get to them sometime, when I am in a bibliophilic mood, but every time I felt like reading one of them, I ended up reasoning that it is better to read an actual book rather than a book on reading. Fortunately, the book gods worked behind the scenes, the stars got aligned and the auspicious time finally arrived. I picked up Prose’s book from my shelf and started reading and after reading a page, got hooked into it. Before I knew I lost myself deep inside the book. I finished reading it yesterday. Here is what I think.
What I think
The subtitle of ‘Reading Like a Writer’ says ‘A Guide for people who love books and for those who want to write them’. That is what the book is about. Francine Prose uses her experience in teaching creative writing classes to gently show the reader the art and craft and science of writing, touching on every topic that is part of any book of fiction – words, sentences, paragraphs, narration, dialogue and others. She takes her favourite books – some of them well-known masterpieces and classics and others little-known gems (atleast to me) – and looks at them through different perspectives and shows why some words, sentences and techniques work in creating a great scene or a great piece of literature and why others don’t. Prose shows through her examples, how reading a book closely, word-by-word and line-by-line, can help us prise out its secrets and show us the book’s beauty and greatness in all their glory. She also discusses the rules taught in creative writing courses and shows how all rules can be broken and how great authors break those rules and create exceptional works of literature. In one place, this is what Prose says on this topic :
In the spring, at the final meeting of the course I was commuting to teach, my students asked : If I had one last thing to tell them about writing, what would it be? They were half joking, partly because by then they knew that whenever I said anything about writing, and often when we’d gone on to some other subject completely, I could usually be counted on to come up with qualifications and even counterexamples proving that the opposite could just as well be true. And yet they were also half serious. We had come far in that class. From time to time, it had felt as if, at nine each Wednesday morning, we were shipwrecked together on an island. Now they wanted a souvenir, a fragment of a seashell to take home.
Reading the book was like attending the class of a favourite teacher, hearing her warm voice as she shares her passion and love for great literature with us, her students, and takes us on an adventurous and educational tour through the literary landscape. During this exciting journey, Prose shares her own experience – things that she discovered while writing books and teaching creative writing – and they are as illuminating as the examples she quotes from other books. Prose also has an obligatory chapter on Chekhov called ‘Learning from Chekhov’, in which, she describes how Chekhov managed to break every rule taught in creative writing courses and still managed to create great literature. Prose’s love for Chekhov comes through in every line and every word of this chapter. In one place Prose says this about Chekhov :
For me, Chekhov’s mystery is first of all one of knowledge : How does he know so much? He knows everything we pride ourselves on having learned, and much more. “The Name Day Party,” a story about a pregnant woman, is full of observations about pregnancy that I had thought were secrets known only to pregnant women.
In another place, she says this :
Reading Chekhov, I felt not happy, exactly, but as close to happiness as I knew I was likely to come. And it occurred to me that this was the pleasure and mystery of reading, as well as the answer to those who say that books will disappear. For now, books are still the best way of taking great art and its consolations along with us on a bus.
Prose’s affection for Chekhov’s work is infectious and it inspires us to go and get the complete works of Chekhov and read all of them end to end. I have Chekhov’s complete plays and two collections of his short stories. I need to get started on them soon.
As an aside, I have always been puzzled why most American writers admire Chekhov. He is a great writer and I love his short stories and his plays (my favourite play of his, out of the ones I have read, is called ‘A Play Without a Title’ or ‘Platonov’ which was made into an awesome Russian movie called ‘An Unfinished Piece for Mechanical Piano’), but if I have to compare him with other Russian writers of his era, I have to say that I also love the stories of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Turgenev. My favourite is actually Turgenev, who wrote those achingly beautiful love stories again and again. So why Chekhov? And why is everyone rooting for him? There seems to be something there, which I am not able to see. Do you know why?
There is a reading list at the end of the book which has most of the titles that Prose discusses in the book. I used that list and made my own ‘TBR’ list containing books / short stories / essays by authors who are new-to-me (mostly). The books / short stories / essays on my list are these :
· The Wonders of the Invisible World by David Gates
· Le Divorce by Diane Johnson
· Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer
· Plot It Yourself by Rex Stout
· A Summons to Memphis by Peter Taylor
· On Being Ill by Virginia Woolf
Have you read any of these?
There is also an interesting interview of Prose at the end of the book and a brief description of some of her books. After reading that I felt that Prose is an interesting novelist, who has probably not got the fame she deserves. I want to read some of her novels now and am hoping to start with ‘Primitive People’.
I had one minor problem with the book. In some places I felt that a particular word or sentence or paragraph was analysed a bit more than necessary. I felt that by just reading the original sentence slowly and savouring it, we can understand what the author is trying to do and analyzing it too much was spoiling the beauty and the fun. But it was a minor complaint I had in an otherwise excellent book.
I also have a couple of questions with respect to what Prose said in the book. One of the things Prose talks about in the early part of the book is how she was trying to find out what is the possessive of a word like Keats, and uses Strunk and White’s style manual and discovers that it is Keats’s. I am not sure whether I agree with that. What do you think? Do you think Keats’s is correct?
Another question I have is on the phrase “If a character’s going to light a cigarette” that Prose has used. I think the word “character’s” representing “character is” is correct. But I have rarely seen this used in actual writing. Most of the time the apostrophe is used only to indicate the possessive. Have you seen this kind of usage where the apostrophe is used to abbreviate the ‘is’?
I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.
A novelist friend compares the rules of grammar, punctuation, and usage to a sort of old-fashioned etiquette. He says that writing is a bit like inviting someone to your house. The writer is the host, the reader the guest, and you, the writer, follow the etiquette because you want your readers to be more comfortable, especially if you’re planning to serve them something they might not be expecting.
In general, I would suggest, the paragraph could be understood as a sort of literary respiration, with each paragraph as an extended – in some cases, very extended – breath.
Reading (Henry) Green, we’re tempted to conclude that he simply had a great ear for the sound and rhythms of speech. But as the critic James Wood points out in an incisive essay on Green’s work, Green often minted words that were not in use during the period in which his novels are set (or during any other period) but that nonetheless sound utterly right. So perhaps the correct conclusion is that Green was less attuned to how people sound when they speak – the actual words and expressions they employ – than to what they mean.
It’s one of the things that writers are most commonly being told these days : their characters should be likable and sympathetic so the reader can care about them. And what does care mean, exactly? Too often, I’m afraid, it’s being used as a synonym for identify. But what’s even more unsettling is the possibility that, in order for us to identify with them, characters in modern fiction are supposed to be nice people, like us, having the exact same experiences that we have had. We want to read about a high school student, maybe with a few problems, one who is going through precisely what we went through in high school. Consequently, we sympathize. We identify. We care.
But the first chapter of Pedro Paramo will not necessarily help you during a bad writing day, or after a few days in which you are constantly fighting what William Burroughs described as the temptation to tear up your work in little pieces and throw it in someone else’s wastepaper basket. And reading a masterpiece may be even less of a consolation when you first figure out, or are reminded for the thousandth time, of how much work writing is, of how much patience and solitude it demands from the writer who wants to write well, and of how the compulsion to spend long hours writing can deform a “normal” life. And, as awful as they are, these doubts and terrors pale beside the question of whether your writing will be any good, or of whether you will succeed enough to be able to do it in the first place. Those are the moments when it can help to read the lives and letters of great writers.
(Note : The following passage is not written by Prose, but is quoted by her from one of Isaac Babel’s interviews, in which Babel talks about revising his work. I think it is one of the best pieces of advice ever given to a budding writer.)
I work like a pack mule, but it’s my own choice. I’m like a galley slave who’s chained for life to his oar but who loves the oar. Everything about it…I go over each sentence, time and again. I start by cutting all the words it can do without. You have to keep your eye on the job because words are very sly, the rubbishy ones go into hiding and you have to dig them out – repetitions, synonyms, things that simply don’t mean anything…I go over every image, metaphor, comparison, to see if they are fresh and accurate. If you can’t find the right adjective for a noun, leave it alone. Let the noun stand by itself. A comparison must be as accurate as a slide rule, and as natural as the smell of fennel…I take out all the participles and adverbs I can…Adverbs are lighter. They can even lend you wings in a way. But too many of them make the language spineless…A noun needs only one adjective, the choicest. Only a genius can afford two adjectives to one noun…Line is as important in prose as in an engraving. It has to be clear and hard…But the most important thing of all…is not to kill the story by working on it. Or else all your labor has been in vain. It’s like walking a tight-rope. Well, there it is…We ought all to take an oath not to mess up our job.
Have you read ‘Reading Like a Writer’? What do you think about it?