BY ROB CLINE
Francine Prose isn’t going to walk you through a 10-step process for penning the novel you have pent up inside. Indeed, her new book, Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them, has been called an “anti-how-to book.”
“I don’t give 10 rules for writing your novel,” Prose said in a phone interview from her home in New York City. “In fact, I explicitly say there are no 10 rules for writing your novel.”
Prose is the author of 14 story collections and novels, including A Changed Man and Blue Angel, which was a finalist for the 2000 National Book Award. She has also penned books for children and young adults, as well as four previous non-fiction books. She is currently writing book reviews for O: The Oprah Magazine, and has had essays and reviews appear in the New York Times, Slate, and a variety of other top-flight publications. She has taught writing and literature for a variety of programs, including the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
All of which is to say: Prose knows of what she writes in Reading Like a Writer. For Prose, attentive reading is a—perhaps the—key activity in which an aspiring writer can engage.
“That’s the most true thing I say in the book: I learned to write by reading,” said Prose.
How attentively is Prose suggesting you read? Well, the book’s second chapter is titled “Words,” the next, “Sentences, then “Paragraphs,” and so on. Drawing heavily from examples of writers she admires, Prose invites her reader to focus on the dramatic ways in which word choices, sentence structure, paragraphing decisions, and the like are—far more than plot—the essential characteristics of an author’s style and the heart of a book’s success or failure.
It is tempting to call Reading Like a Writer nothing short of revelatory. Certainly, reading it alongside new novels by Nell Freudenberger, Alice McDermott, and Heidi Julavits brings to the fore the choices and habits that make each of these writers unique and engaging. Freudenberger’s decisions about perspective, McDermott’s use of incantatory language, Julavits’s gift for the telling detail—Reading Like a Writer encourages us to notice and admire each facet.
Prose is well aware that the approach to reading she advocates is demanding.
“Think the next book is going to have to be called Rereading Like a Writer,” she said with a laugh, acknowledging that the pace of life discourages many who would like to make reading a priority.
“Of course, you can always go back to something and give it the attention it deserves,” she said, “and I think it’s a sign if something makes you want to go back and look at something again.”
Those are the kind of books that interest Prose the reader and Prose the critic.
“More and more, I don’t review books I don’t like. . . . I think literature is having a hard enough time without giving someone reasons not to read . . . and there is enough great literature out there that you can be a kind of cheerleader for books.”
Encouraging people to read is a central purpose of Reading Like a Writer.
“Unless there are readers out there, what are [writers] doing?”
Though she draws examples from a wide array of writers, one author Prose never references in Reading Like a Writer is Francine Prose. Which of her own novels best puts into practice the principles she explores?
“A Changed Man, I would say, because it’s all about language,” Prose said.
A Changed Man features four close third-person perspectives, including that of a neo-Nazi attempting to leave his past life behind by working for a human rights organization. The book was not as well received as Blue Angel, but Prose believes she delivered a well-crafted set of diverse points of view.
“The way I was able to distinguish them one from another was through language,” she said, acknowledging that some critics suggested the novel lacked lyricism. “Neo-Nazi’s aren’t lyrical.”
It’s an excellent point, and it demonstrates Prose’s contention that issues of plot and characterization are deeply influenced by the language choices authors make. Reading Like a Writer is an indispensable—and enjoyable—guide to close reading that belongs on the shelf of all lovers of great writing.