- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 9, 2006

READING LIKE A WRITER: A GUIDE FOR PEOPLE WHO LOVE BOOKS AND FOR THOSE WHO WANT

TO WRITE THEM

By Francine Prose

HarperCollins, $23.95, 273 pages

REVIEWED BY KELLY JANE TORRANCE

Reading books about writing just might be the best way to avoid writing. (And so many aspiring writers, we hear, will do anything to avoid the daunting act of writing.)

The last few decades have seen a proliferation of instructional aids that aim to teach what some consider unteachable — how to create a literary work of art. Offering lessons on the craft of writing, these books suggest methods for generating ideas, ways to make your characters more compelling and tips on making your dialogue more life-like.

But are they anything other than a waste of time that allows the reader to feel less guilty for merely thinking about writing rather than actually writing?

After all, none of the greats read books with titles like “The Weekend Novelist” or “Careers for Your Characters.” Texts like that weren’t around when Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Fyodor Dostoyevsky were writing their masterpieces. So how did they do it? Through trial and error, for one. Austen’s juvenilia, for example, charts the development of a writer who told stories from the time she was a child.

It’s hard to envision one of these geniuses in a present-day creative writing program. Just imagine, Francine Prose writes, “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.”

Miss Prose makes this wry point in her latest book, “Reading like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them.” She said much the same thing in her 2000 novel “Blue Angel,” which was, among other delightful things, a wicked skewering of writing workshops. So it might come as a surprise to learn that this author of 14 books of fiction and provocative studies like “The Lives of the Muses: Nine Women and the Artists They Inspired” has been teaching literature and writing for over 20 years and is now the author of an instructional book.

“Reading like a Writer” is different from the rest of the pack, however. It recognizes that other thing talented authors did to learn their craft in the days before creative writing became a cottage industry: read.

“They studied meter with Ovid, plot construction with Homer, comedy with Aristophanes; they honed their prose style by absorbing the lucid sentences of Montaigne and Samuel Johnson,” Miss Prose writes. We didn’t need her to tell us this, of course. But her wise book serves as an inspirational reminder while providing some helpful tools for becoming not just readers but close readers.

Using examples from a wide variety of classic and contemporary authors, Miss Prose shows how careful reading of good writing can illuminate the problems every writer faces. Chapters move from “Words,” “Sentences” and “Paragraphs” through “Narration” and “Character.”

In an analysis of the first paragraph of Flannery O’Connor’s classic short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” for example, Miss Prose shows how a single word can be loaded with meaning: “And that one word, connections (as opposed to relatives or family or people), reveals the grandmother’s sense of her own faded gentility, of having come down in the world, a semi-deluded self-image that, like the illusions of many other O’Connor characters, will contribute to the character’s downfall.”

(You might notice here that Miss Prose sometimes gives away plot points of the works under discussion. It’s never egregious, however.)

Even those of us who read as much as we can sometimes forget to slow down and savor every word. Miss Prose explains how much more we can get out of our reading if we do. “Reading like a Writer” will most appeal to writers; but voracious readers will find their habits changing after reading it, too.

Where Miss Prose is most insightful is in the later chapters, on subjects like “Dialogue,” “Details” and “Gesture.” Here her years of reading and writing result in some astute lessons. “[M]ost conversations involve a sort of sophisticated multitasking,” she writes. “One mark of bad written dialogue is that it is only doing one thing, at most, at once.”

Even more important can be dialogue that’s not really heard. “In life, it’s rare that we truly are able to listen and find someone who will listen to us,” she notes. “And yet it’s unusual to find the more common phenomenon — inattention — appearing on the page.”

Any writer who wants his work to stand out will find much to glean from these pages.

Of course, for every maxim, there’s an eminent writer who has broken it. In the penultimate chapter, “Learning from Chekhov,” Miss Prose relates a year of teaching in which she was reading the short stories of the Russian master in her spare time. Every time she gave her students some advice — don’t shift point of view multiple times in a short story, don’t end your story with an unexpected, seemingly unmotivated action — it seemed she immediately read a story in which Chekhov taught her the opposite.

The coincidences seem a little unlikely, but the point remains: There’s something inexplicable, finally, about the mysterious process of creating art. “By now I had learned my lesson,” she relates. “I began telling my class to read Chekhov instead of listening to me.”

Miss Prose has plenty of wisdom to impart. But she’s right: No one can teach you how to write better than those who have done it best. She offers a “Books to Be Read Immediately” list at the end, many of which she’s discussed in her text.

Unfortunately, this long list of mostly fiction isn’t annotated. And like any slightly idiosyncratic selection, one can wonder at the absences. Shouldn’t students interested in satire read the master of the genre, Evelyn Waugh? Who couldn’t learn about language from Orwell? And perhaps the absence of Edith Wharton explains why Miss Prose told her students “that the sufferings of the poor are more compelling and worthy of our attention than the vague discontents of the rich.” (Chekhov made her backtrack.) But then, she did include F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Tender Is the Night.”

Miss Prose’s students asked her at the end of term for one last piece of advice. “The most important things, I told them, were observation and consciousness,” she says, echoing something Henry James once said. “Keep your eyes open, see clearly, think about what you see, ask yourself what it means.”

In other words, put that writing manual down, experience the world and reflect on it. Or at least read the great works of those who have.

Kelly Jane Torrance is an arts and entertainment writer at The Washington Times and fiction editor of Doublethink magazine.

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