Francine Prose’s Reading Like A Writer

Reading Like A WriterI am angry with Francine Prose. She had been on my list of “must-read” authors for months now, and just when I managed to find a copy of Reading Like A Writer in a local bookstore, she announced her dissent from PEN for their decision to honor Charlie Hebdo with their Freedom of Expression Courage Award. I find Prose’s stance both cowardly and stupid (my favorite rebuttal belongs to The Spectator’s Nick Cohen), so the book sat on my nightstand for some time before I grudgingly began reading – which is to say I was not predisposed to like this book or be impartial in my assessment. And yet I did like it.

Beginning with an introduction on Close Reading, and moving on to chapters on Words, Sentences, Paragraphs, Narration, Character and Dialogue, among other essential ingredients of fiction writing, Prose proves herself to be a careful and attentive reader. Good critics share not only their insights but their passions, enabling us to read as they read, and there is much of this vicarious enjoyment on offer here. It is a genuine pleasure to follow her thoughts as she makes a connection between, say, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce and Paul Bowles – an odd trinity – in their use of a particular technique, or in the vast gulf that separates Heinrich von Kleist, Jane Austen and Marcel Proust in their approach to creating character: the first relying on narrative, the second on dialogue and the third on psychological exposition. In these readings and interpretations, Prose is a wonderful guide, her skills no doubt honed from her long career teaching creative writing.

I was also glad to discover in Prose an ally against the sad turn literary studies has taken in the past half-century or so, as she too deplores the politicization of literature and the cold, disdainful approach favored by so many academics:

Only once did my passion for reading steer me in the wrong direction, and that was when I let it persuade me to go to graduate school. There, I soon realized that my love for books was unshared by many of my classmates and professors. I found it hard to understand what they did love, exactly, and this gave me an anxious shiver that would later seem like a warning about what would happen to the teaching of literature over the decade or so after I dropped out of my Ph.D program. That was when literary academia split into warring camps of deconstructionists, Marxists, feminists, and so forth, all battling for the right to tell students that they were reading “texts” in which ideas and politics trumped what the writer had actually written.

This is the sad state of much of contemporary literary studies: sanctimonious professors, attuned to every bias but their own, instruct students to ape these sanctimonies in their turn. In Reading Like A Writer, Prose offers an attractive alternative: ditch the moralizing and handwringing and approach literature with a measure of humility; you may find yourself enjoying what you read.