Reading: Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose
Title: 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.
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.