Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them has appeared on several ‘books all writers should read’ lists that I’ve seen, and the concept intrigued me. We often hear the advice that writers should read widely, and here was a book that purported to tell writers how to make the most of this advice.
The author begins by explaining, with a lot of autobiographical reference, the how and why of close reading. Prose then moves on to specifics, starting small, with chapters devoted to words and sentences, before moving on to broader considerations like dialogue and character.
I found the initial chapters somewhat vague; a lot of description of how a good sentence makes the author feel, for instance, but little in the way of actual analysis of what good sentences have in common. This suggests that ‘a good sentence’ is a somewhat subjective experience, which is bourne out by the appeal (and lengthy quotations from) the usual range of ‘Classics’.
Dismissing ‘the Classics’ is easily done, and I do accept that many of them are classics for a reason, but, as someone who enjoys and reads a lot of genre fiction, it began to feel like the takeaway from this book was that the only things worth reading or writing fall within a very narrow range of 20th Century novels and short stories. It’s unspoken assumption is that serious writers don’t write genre.
Prose explains early on that her approach to close reading came partly out of a move within University English departments to approach texts through critical theories, meaning that students often failed to learn any close reading skills. While I remember a lot of theory in my English degree, nothing that she described in respect of the mechanics of close reading was new to me.
I take the point that I should read widely but it’s frustrating that many of the writers who say that go on to give a remarkably prescriptive list of recommended (in this case ‘must read immediately’) books that are virtually identical to the traditional literary canon. I can see that her advice might be a good starting place for someone who hasn’t formally studied English Literature though.
For me the problem with this book is that it lies somewhere between memoir and manual. I appreciate that it’s hard not to fall into memoir when you’re a writer giving advice, but there were times that the memoir was really more personal than required; the Chekov chapter felt particularly gratuitous, and made me not want to read Chekov. This was interesting, but I don’t think I will be going back to it.