Reading Like a Writer – Francine Prose

February 18, 2010 § 14 Comments

God is in the details.

It’s a phrase I was taught in architecture school. We were taught to design everything, from the general look of the building, right down to how one piece of wood might join the second. We were told that it’s in the details that everything happens.

Reading Like a Writer also had this to teach me. Reading and writing have always been my two greatest passions in life. But though reading is relatively easy (just pick up a book, and make sense of what someone else has already written), writing something good is a completely different matter. I’ve always heard others tell me that in order to write well, one must read well. But what does it mean to read well, and what can I learn from reading?

The book was a little… well, the way it was presented was a little unexpected. I had expected quotes from different books, naturally, but I definitely didn’t expect quotes from books going 3 pages long. And because Prose was telling us how to pick up pointers and tips of how some of the great writers “do it”, the quoted piece would be followed by some explanation of why the author might have used this word, or how the atmosphere was created by just that woman’s sigh. The book did show me an entirely new way of reading.

I did enjoy the book, though some parts seemed to drag on for quite a bit. And because she quoted from so many of the more classical authors, the ‘masters’, so to speak, and I haven’t read so many of them, I did feel somewhat overwhelmed by all the literature. I felt out of my league, like I didn’t belong. And I also felt a little disturbed. Did she not find any contemporary writers good enough to quote?

I quite liked her style of writing. But I think I got a little tired of how she was dissecting every piece of literature she quoted in the book. A lot of the time, I read and try to connect with the story, the characters, or the spirit of the book. I like to ‘feel’ the book. I like connecting to books on a more emotional level. Though I found it very interesting to find out how some authors used certain methods to create an absurd scene that feel totally believable, I couldn’t help but wonder if I really wanted to be thinking about why Jane Austen decided to not tell us how tall Elizabeth was, or why Kafka described in such detail the calendar on the wall when I read their books.

Still, I think it has done some good things for me.

We begin to want information, entertainment, invention, even truth and beauty. We concentrate, we skim, we skip words, put down the book and daydream, start over, and reread. We finish a book and return to it years later to see what we might have missed, or the ways in which time and age have affected our understanding.

With so much reading ahead of you, the temptation might be to speed up. But in fact it’s essential to slow down and read every word. Because one important thing that can be learned by reading slowly is the seemingly obvious but oddly underappreciated fact that languagae is the medium we use in much the same way a composer uses notes, the way a painter uses paint. I realse it may seen obvious, but it’s surprising how easily we lose sight of the fact that words are the raw material out of which literature is crafted.

… labor longer, try harder, to return to that trouble spot and rework that imprecise or awkward sentence until it is something to be proud of instead os something you hope that the reader won’t notice.

Rating: 3

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§ 14 Responses to Reading Like a Writer – Francine Prose

  • Amanda says:

    I don’t like reading this sort of book – books that tell me how to do something specific – but I’ve always read like a writer. Half my reviews focus on writing technique. If it’s not well-written, i usually have a hard time enjoying it. (Exception: Harry Potter, which is technically imperfect, but the story is so good that it cancels out the technical imperfections).

    • Michelle says:

      I don’t usually read this kind of book either. But I thought it’d be interesting, and it was for some of the parts. I did get a pointer or two, which is good.

      I have actually NOT read any of the Harry Potter books. =p

      • Vishy says:

        Interesting! Maybe you would like to try it sometime. I liked the Harry Potter series till volume 5, till when the stories were really gripping. I felt things slackened out and dragged on a bit after that – especially the last volume.

  • Nymeth says:

    Hmm…I think I might feel the same way as you – especially because, not having grown up with English literature, I’m still catching up with the classics.

    • Michelle says:

      Sometimes I think if it’s alright to leave some of the classics alone.. It gets a little difficult to get the language sometimes, and it takes away from my enjoying the book.

  • chasing bawa says:

    I’m hoping to finally read this book this year as it’s been hanging around my TBR pile for way too long. I was worried about whether it would be too dry and too textbook-like for my liking, but I like reading books about books, reading and writing anyway and I’d heard good things about this one.

    • Michelle says:

      You’re probably a little more familiar with the authors and their work that she refers to in the book, so maybe you’ll enjoy it more. In any case, it was quite a good book.

  • Vishy says:

    Interesting review! I have this book on my ‘TBR’ list but haven’t read it till now, because I am worried that it might make me analyze every book I am reading, and spoil my enjoyment 🙂 There is another book called ‘How to Read Literature Like a Professor’ by Thomas Foster, which is on a similar topic, but probably a bit more lighter. But I am not sure whether you would like to read another book on the same topic 🙂

    • Michelle says:

      It actually did that to me for a while. I read this book over about a week or so, and during that period, while I was reading other books, I did seem to slow down and ‘analyze’ a little more than usual. Though I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily a bad thing.

  • christa says:

    I tried reading it last year as I want to get more out of my reading, but I got bored and abandoned it!

  • This is interesting. Lately I’ve noticed that I’m becoming less focused on what the story is about than on what the prose can teach me about the craft of writing. It’s more like I’m studying than reading all the time, and I have to admit that it can be rather tiring.

    About the classics, I have this belief that while we can learn a lot from the classics, we can’t really use them as templates today (unless you’re trying to write something with a classical atmosphere), especially in the case of short stories. A lot has changed in the way people think and express themselves.

    I did see this book some time ago at the bookstore but I was wondering if it’d be worth reading. Based on your review, I think I just might get myself a copy. Hmm…

    • Michelle says:

      There are some books that I tend to focus more on the writing, and some other books, I just let the story sort of bring me along. There’s also always that subconscious picking up of triks and techniques that happens when we read, though. That’s what I think.

      I think you’d enjoy this book much more than I did, for some reason. It feels that way for me, so if you do pick it up, I hope you’ll enjoy it (and what it can teach you too!).

  • Kurobana says:

    “Did she not find any contemporary writers good enough to quote?”

    Good point. I didn’t really understand her preference for older writers over newer ones… either she wanted to rely on books that were already well-acclaimed or that’s just her taste. She did reference Pynchon once or twice, but I don’t think she ever quoted him. I thought her anecdote about wanting to run through the halls and ask the other professors whether Chekhov or Pynchon was better after a student said Pynchon was better was pretty funny. xD

    “I quite liked her style of writing. But I think I got a little tired of how she was dissecting every piece of literature she quoted in the book.”

    I actually felt like she wasn’t doing dissection so much as praising the aspects she felt were good. Camille Paglia’s Break, Blow, Burn is a lot better for real dissections of literature (Shakespeare through modern poetry). I’m sure there are plenty of other good books that dissect poems, but Paglia’s is the one I’ve come into contact with that I’ve liked the best.

    And we gave it the same rating! *high five*

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