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Reading: Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose

January 27, 2012

Reading Like a WriterTitle: Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them
Author: Prose, Francine
Length: 273 pages
Genre: Non-Fiction, Reading, Writing
Publisher / Year: Harper Perennial / 2006
Source: Purchased pre-2009.
Rating: 3/5
Why I Read It: One of the books with the Roommate Challenge.
Date Read: 26/01/12

I must admit a bit of initial disappointment in the book because of wrong expectations. I thought the book was about reading, but it is really about writing and its primary audience seems to be those who wish to write. While I may write book reviews, and have been known to write an essay or two, I’ve never considered myself a writer, really, and I have no long-term plans of writing a book. Especially a novel. Which is what this book is primarily about – writing sentences and paragraphs, writing gesture, writing dialogue, writing characters, and etc.

That being said, there was still some to interest me in this work. While it wasn’t what I was expecting, Prose still talks about the benefit and importance of close reading, which is something I’ve long been a fan of as well. While I have skimmed occasionally in my life, I do try not to. She also talks about why we love what we do in books often – why certain characters seem more real, the types of dialogue that flow best, and so on. It is interesting watching her argue each side of a position though and give examples for each.

I’d read almost none of the books that she discusses but then, Prose and I have different reading paths and tastes! While I’ve read a few classics, I tend to avoid them in favor of more non-fiction on topics of interest and literature from around the world, especially from Africa. I don’t believe any of Prose’s examples were from African authors. What I love most about their writings, and the non-fiction I read, is often how language is distorted. Close reading in these books are always necessary and rewarded. Marechera says it best in his introduction to The House of Hunger:

For a black writer the language is very racist; you have to have harrowing fights and hair-raising panga duels with the language before you can make it do all that you want it to do. It is so for the feminists. English is very male. (page 7)

I would love to see Prose’s take on these books. Which brings me to another point from the work. Prose loves the idea of close reading but is not at all a fan of “deconstructionists, Marxits, 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” as she says on page 8. I don’t think that the two are exclusive. When close reading it is equally evident and important to note the ideas behind the work – which doesn’t mean as Prose seems to imply that works can’t have unsavory characters or that they should all be likeable and good, but rather that we can talk about the issues in books and deconstruct why and where these ideas came from, among other things.

Other points that Prose raised were about translations and the importance of remembering the layer between the choice of ‘tone and diction’ of the original author and of the translator and how they both play a part. With translations, she implies, we are essentially putting our trust in the translator to keep it similar for us. Also discussed was the freedom that writers have in choice and imagination. She talks about how authors are not usually friends of dictators and corporations for this very reason.

In the end, the only real advice that Prose has is to continue reading because there is never a hard and fast rule in writing. The book had some interesting observations and ideas throughout, and I know that any aspiring writer would enjoy it and get a lot out of it. As a non-aspiring creative writer I can only say that I still enjoyed some of the other aspects, as I mention above.

30 Comments leave one →
  1. January 27, 2012 1:35 pm

    I listened to the audio version of this and was actually surprised at how relevant it was to someone like me who doesn’t aspire to be a writer. I think it I was afraid that it would be more of a writing manual, which it wasn’t at all. And that just goes to show how expectations affect our opinions :) I really liked her emphasis on close, attentive reading, which is something I don’t always take the time to do, and she had some good examples of how to do it.

    • January 27, 2012 10:26 pm

      Expectations certainly matter a lot don’t they Teresa? Always nice to think that we can go beyond them but then something like this shows what a hold they still have. Glad to hear that you really enjoyed this one though. Like you I liked the focus on close reading.

    • January 29, 2012 7:55 pm

      I tried to listen to this one as an audio book a few years ago, and I just couldn’t do it. I needed to see the passages she was analyzing, I think, in order for the book to help my writing (not novel writing, but writing nonetheless). I’m not a great audio book person though… I have very specific things I need to pay attention to one :)

      • January 30, 2012 3:47 pm

        It would definitely be a different experience on audio because of all of the quotes. Then again, I have trouble really concentrating on anything with too much fact or detail on audio Kim!

  2. January 27, 2012 8:40 pm

    I enjoyed bits and pieces of this one because I think I had some of the same expectations. Prose is great…like her style for the most part, but this book was just “good enough” for me.

    • January 27, 2012 10:27 pm

      I found some parts dry Andi, I think because of the focus on creative writing that I just don’t care much about. That being said, you are right – definitely some really interesting bits as well. Glad you liked some of it at least!

  3. January 28, 2012 8:06 pm

    Even though you were disappointed that this is more about writing than reading, I’m actually pretty excited about that. I would like to consider myself a writer one day, so may be I should pull this one off the TBR and read it sooner rather than later.

    • January 29, 2012 1:04 pm

      I think you should definitely give it a read Lu, you’d probably love it!

  4. January 28, 2012 8:16 pm

    Sounds like an interesting read. I don’t know if I’ll ever read this one, though. I used to write but it doesn’t seem like I’m ever going to go back to writing fiction. I probably ought to start pulling all the how-to books on writing off my shelves and get rid of them.

    • January 29, 2012 1:04 pm

      Oh really? Do you think it’s just a phase that you’re not feeling like you’ll write again Nancy or permanent?

  5. January 29, 2012 12:33 pm

    When I read the title, I got all excited, but then hearing it’s more about writing than reading, I was disappointed. Like you (and it seems unlike most other bloggers), I don’t consider myself a writer at all and have no interest in writing a book.

    • January 29, 2012 1:08 pm

      It does seem sometimes like the majority of bloggers want to write a novel doesn’t it Trisha!? I like knowing there are more non-writers out there :)

  6. January 29, 2012 7:22 pm

    Prose sounds like a controversial person.
    Although such authors may seem a bit odd, they tend to give uncommon perspectives to the subject matter.
    I’ll love to lay my hands on ‘Reading Like A Writer’

    • January 30, 2012 3:51 pm

      I’m not sure if controversial is the right word Kwadwo if only because most maybe wouldn’t even consider some of what I picked out of it. Nor does she likely do it on purpose – that doesn’t make it any better though! I would certainly love to hear your thoughts on this one.

  7. January 29, 2012 9:09 pm

    I’m not sure I would like this book, as I don’t consider myself a writer either, and probably would lose focus with the intent being on writing as opposed to reading.

    • January 30, 2012 3:52 pm

      Yes, not having any plans on writing does make it less interesting zibilee it is true!

  8. January 30, 2012 6:07 pm

    I have owned this book for ages, too, and still haven’t read it…

    • February 1, 2012 9:17 am

      Will be interested to hear your thoughts if and when you get to it Kailana.

  9. January 31, 2012 1:06 pm

    Glad to know that you liked this book, Amy, though you didn’t love it. I read it sometime back and I loved it. (In case you are interested, you can find my review here.) I can understand how you had different expectations – that the book was written for readers – while it seemed to have been written for writers. I liked reading your thoughts on how Prose advocates close reading on one hand but doesn’t like close readings done from a critical perspective (like a Marxist perspective or a feminist perspective) on the other hand. One of the things that I liked about the book is the list of books that Prose gives in the end. I am hoping to read some of those books. Prose doesn’t seem to have discussed any African writers or books as you have said. Other that North American / British / French / Russian literature, she discusses maybe a Japanese work and a Spanish work. She mentions James Baldwin though (he is African-American) and discusses his short story ‘Sonny’s Blues’. I read that short story and it is awesome. If you are interested in a book like this for readers, you might want to try ‘How to Read Literature Like a Professor’ by Thomas Foster or ‘How to Read a Novel’ by John Sutherland.

    • February 2, 2012 8:58 am

      Thanks for the link to your review which I think I’d somehow missed before Vishy. It was interesting for sure to see the contradictions, but you are right the list of books looks interesting. Doesn’t hugely appeal to me given my avoidance of classics ;) And yes, African American authors, a few from around the world, but no African lit. I was sad. None from India either I don’t think…

      • February 3, 2012 1:48 pm

        Yes :) Maybe it was just a collection of classics which Prose liked. Probably Prose’s list also reflects the era she grew up in.

      • February 7, 2012 8:22 pm

        Yes, good point Vishy!

  10. February 1, 2012 9:26 am

    I enjoyed this book very much — maybe because I DO love reading classics and I loved how she discussed why the writing in certain classics is so great. I at one point wanted to be a writer: now i just want to enjoy the writing I find elsewhere, and I felt this book helped me appreciate what I read more!

    • February 2, 2012 8:58 am

      That is a good reason to like the book Rebecca! I much prefer enjoying the writing elsewhere as well. heh

  11. February 1, 2012 3:42 pm

    But then, her subtitle does kind of hint that she’s writing at least half of her book for those who want to write books, no? * grin *

    Nonetheless, I do agree that the degree to which one is interested in writing can affect the kind of bookchat that you most enjoy. For instance, I really enjoy the podcasts that the BBC’s World Book Club and CBC’s Writers&Company produce — because they often reveal aspects of the writer’s life and process that some of the more commercial bookish podcasts overlook — but I know there’s too much writing-talk in there for some readers (and yet, too, some non-writers also seem to really enjoy them).

    To each her own, of course, as always. I think I quite liked Prose’s book but I admit, now, to possibly having confused it with Jane Smiley’s 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, which is also fairly western-Lit-focussed, so I should have another look I suppose.

    • February 2, 2012 9:03 am

      Yeah yeah I clearly should have paid more attention BiP ;) Definitely depends on your interests, I likely wouldn’t enjoy those podcasts from the sound of it. But if you like those, you may have liked this indeed.

  12. Jillian ♣ permalink
    February 4, 2012 1:32 pm

    Sounds like an interesting book. I’ll be reading it later this year, and since I do have an interest in writing, I might have a different take omn it. I’m curious. :D

  13. Jillian ♣ permalink
    February 4, 2012 1:32 pm

    * on

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  1. January 2012 Reading Wrap-Up « Amy Reads

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