Since I had only one chapter left of Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer, I decided to finish last night instead of on my lunch break at work. That way I got to start a new book today, The Gutenberg Elegies by Sven Birkerts. So far I am enjoying it. But I am getting off track.
Dorothy has already finished the book and she found it a bit disappointing. I must say I did too. I expected something more than I got. I felt like it was a book like any other book about how to read closely and carefully only instead of the goal being study, it is to learn writing from the experts–assuming you are reading “literature” and not fluff. And that assumption was one of the things that bothered me a bit because Prose assumes what the reader wants to write is Literature and so one must read Literature. I am all for the reading of Literature, but there aren’t many people who write it. And I was a bit disappointed Prose did not open up the discussion to include different kinds of Literature, because, in my opinion, Literature isn’t all Tolstoy and Chekhov, Literature can be found in different genres which require different approaches and emphasis on different elements than straight up classic Literature. Of course her suggestions for close reading apply across genre, but I felt a certain lack of acknowledgment on that.
Aside from the annoying first three chapters on words, sentences and paragraphs, she takes a general approach to various topics like narration, gesture, dialogue, etc. Instead of filling the book with page after page of illustrating quotations, I wish she would have sometimes gotten more specific. For instance, it would have been nice if she had talked about setting and time. By time I mean whether a story is told in the past, present, or future. Also the order in which a story is told as well as the length of time over which the story takes place–a day, a year, generations–and also the pace at which the story is told. These are important things to pay attention to for readers and writers.
The book wasn’t all bad. She had some interesting things to say about point of view and the various ways to write from a first person, some of which don’t use “I.” I also liked part of her discussion of dialogue in which she points out that sometimes dialogue is not about what is being said but what is not being said, or what is attempting to be hidden–the subtext.
I found the chapter on Chekhov to be the best in the book. In it she admits that there are no rules when it comes to writing. Everything she told her students to do, or not do, seemed to be contradicted in one way or other by Chekhov. She even told her class to read Chekhov instead of listen to her.
My copy of the book has an interview Prose did with The Atlantic Online. In the interview, Prose says that the book is “about the pleasure of reading and about learning to write.” When the interviewer tells Prose she is thinking of using the book for one of her writing classes, Prose responds:
Yeah, well that’s my hope. It really is my hope that people will use it in classes–and not just for the obvious reasons. For me, writing this book was a pretty passionate endeavor. What I’m hoping is that some of that passion gets through. Because it seems to me that the most important thing in any discussion of reading and writing is that intense commitment to the whole process.
Which leaves me wondering what the motivation behind writing the book was.
The book would probably be good reading for someone who wants to be a writer but doesn’t have a lot of experience with close reading. For an avid reader who does not want to be a writer or who has had practice with close reading, the book will probably feel a little lightweight.