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Book Review: Reading Like a Writer

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Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them
By Francine Prose
HarperCollins, April 2007, $13.95

Francine Prose begins her New York Times bestseller, Reading Like a Writer, with a question she’s often asked: Can creative writing be taught? Her answer: “A workshop can be useful. A good teacher can show you how to edit your work. The right class can form the basis of a community that will help and sustain you.” However, she says, “Like most—maybe all—writers, I learned to write by writing and, by example, by reading books.”

Prose has taught at Bard College, the New School, and other stops along the Hudson and beyond for 20 years. She suggests that while a love of language and a gift for storytelling cannot be taught, much of the craft of writing can be learned. In Reading Like a Writer, which comes out in paperback next month, she gives nine basic tools to help people become better readers and, through osmosis, better writers: close reading, words, sentences, paragraphs, narration, character, dialogue, details, and gesture. Neither a style guide nor a how-to manual, Prose’s book takes a different approach than the many books on writing currently flooding the market. It’s part instruction, part introduction to—and celebration of—the novelist’s own favorite books.

Prose argues that the best way to learn how to write is by reading well-written books. For anyone whose library needs a boost, the final chapter, “Books to Be Read Immediately,” is a useful four-page resource. Her varied roster of authors includes Charles Baxter (Believers: A Novella and Stories), Emily Bronte (Wuthering Heights), Denis Johnson (Jesus’ Son), and John Le Carre (A Perfect Spy). Prose reserves an entire chapter for the author whom she credits as having taught her the most about writing and teaching, Anton Chekhov. Describing her reaction to one of his stories, “A Woman’s Kingdom,” she makes a powerful argument for reading in general: “By the time I had finished the story, I felt that I had been challenged, not only in my more flippant statements about fiction but also in my most basic assumptions about life.”

Reading Like a Writer is for students of literature, for serious readers, and for published and aspiring writers of every ilk. The excerpts alone are stimulating. Prose stretches and pulls words, sentences, and paragraphs apart like warm taffy in her fingers. She directs us to contemplate “the crucial revelations in the spaces between words” of Katherine Mansfield; “the simple, declarative sentence” of Flannery O’Connor; “the plain, spare, even Spartan” approach to language of Alice Munro.

Seeded throughout the book are useful technical tips that will help writers craft more powerful compositions. Prose describes the paragraph, for example, as “a sort of literary respiration, with each paragraph as an extended—in some cases very extended—breath.” A rule of paragraph structure: “What appears at the start and end of a paragraph has greater weight than what appears in the middle.” She quotes various forms of that most basic structural element, as found in the writing of Paula Fox, Gabriel Marcia Marquez, and those masters of style and grammar, William Strunk and E.B. White.

Reading slowly and attentively, giving attention to every word, every sentence, and each paragraph break, requires stamina, concentration, and patience, writes Prose. She compares the experience to viewing a painting by Rembrandt or Velasquez, “not just far away but up close, too, in order to see the brush strokes.” The reward, she promises, is coming as close as humanly possible to the mind of the artist.

In magnifying snippets of classic texts, Prose directs our attention to something we already know: We are better people when we read. The only drawback to Prose’s book is that because her argument is so convincing, one might be tempted to set down her book in favor of the many books she quotes.

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