Reading like a writer

Today was my last day of classes, and I feel like I’m in an in-between state — it’s not quite summer yet, but it’s so close, and so I’m tempted to start all kinds of new books because I can feel some free time opening up in front of me. I’ll have plenty of work to do over the summer (including teaching a class), but I’ll certainly have a lot more time for reading than I do during the semester, and I’m so looking forward to it! But for right now, I still have papers and exams to grade, and meetings and workshops to attend, and so I probably should hold off on starting all those books I’d like to start.

I did, however, begin Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer last night, a book I requested from the library and which came much sooner than I thought it would. As I don’t plan on becoming a writer (in the sense of someone who writes creative stuff for purposes of publication), I’m not reading it for the writing advice, but it looked interesting for what it says about reading.

So far I’m feeling rather ambivalently about the book. I like the advice about reading — I’ve now read the chapter on Prose’s reading and educational history and the one entitled “Words” about how we should read slowly in order to pick up on the significant word choices writers make, although describing it in this way makes her advice seem incredibly obvious and dull. I suppose this sort of book lives in the examples, and her examples are fun to read. She does a particularly good analysis of the opening to Flannery O’Connor’s story “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”

The other pleasure in reading this book must surely be in picking up some reading recommendations. So far, Prose has me interested in reading more Katherine Mansfield and has made me want to read and re-read some Chekhov. There’s a fun list of “Books to be Read Immediately” in the back of the book, although a quick glance through it tells me that there’s no way I’m reading all those books immediately; there are many, many of them that I haven’t read.

At some points Prose’s attitude bothers me; I really didn’t like her dismissive attitude toward literary theory. I’m most certainly no big theorist myself, but I get tired of the way smart people bash literary theory in stupid ways. She assumes that people who “do theory” don’t love literature — that the two are mutually exclusive — and that’s an assumption I just don’t buy. Prose sounds as dismissive of theory as she says theorists are of literature. I’ve known too many people who love literature and who use theory brilliantly to help them understand it to believe her argument.

That aside, the book should be interesting, and I’m guessing that besides the pleasure it brings, it will be most useful to me in the way I teach literature — I would like to know more about the craft of writing in order to discuss that more intelligently with students. Prose talks about her own experiences teaching literature, and I was interested to read about her methods — she likes to go through a story or through a passage word by word, sentence by sentence, digging out the meaning slowly and systematically. Now, there’s no way I’m teaching like that because to me it sounds deadly boring (surely she must have ways of making that fun — but what?), but I do like the idea of balancing wide-ranging discussions of themes with close critiques of passages, something I do already, but could do more of, I’m sure.

14 Comments

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14 responses to “Reading like a writer

  1. I’ll be starting the Prose book this week, I hope. I am looking forward to it and hadn’t noticed the book list in the back yet. So of course I had to grab it since it is sitting right next to me and look at it. I just glanced and it looks like there are some interesting choices on it.

  2. Doesn’t it feel good to be done with classes! Our students finished last Friday, so it should be quiet in the library over the summer. Things don’t change a lot for me since I am there the same amount of time as when classes are in session, but it is more laid back. I’d like to read the Prose book (which I think is now out in paper), but like you I have no desire to be a writer. I would like to write better, but I think I am too lazy to really work at it. But I am interested in what she says about reading–do writers approaching reading in a way that is different than someone out to read primarily for pleasure? I suppose so–I guess I should read the book to answer my question! :)

  3. By the way–I have just lately become interested in Katherine Mansfield, though I have sort of gone about it in a backwards way. I am interested in her biography—what an intriguing life, but I am sure that will in turn lead to reading her prose as well.

  4. Cam

    I started this book several months ago, read the first chapter or two, set it down and haven’t picked it up since. I don’t remember if I didn’t like it, or maybe it just didn’t make enough of an impression to go back to read the rest. I’ll be interested in your & Stephanie’s comments; maybe I’ll be persuaded to finish reading Prose’s book.

  5. I’m hoping to read “A Good Man is Hard to Find” this weekend for Literate Kitten’s Short Story Challenge. If I can find time, I might check out Francine Prose’s analysis of the story. But only after I read the story.

    Thanks for the tip.

  6. LK

    I do hope you list some of those “books to be read immediately.” Who knows? More TBR?

  7. The list is interesting, Stefanie — I counted up the books, and I’ve read 33 out of 117. That didn’t strike me as very good. Oh, well. Danielle, I know just what you mean about laziness! Writing is such hard work. Prose’s point, I think, is that writers pay close attention to how a work is constructed — the sentences, the paragraphs, the dialogue, etc., and aren’t just paying attention to the ideas. They are more conscious of how the ideas are expressed. Cam — I’m enjoying the book, but I can see why you might put it down — it’s interesting, but you kind of get the point early on, and the examples can sometimes get a little tiresome. Dark Orpheus — Prose has only a short section on the story, maybe a page or two, although it’s quite good. I hope you enjoy the story! LK — I found the list online, actually; check this out: http://www.bookofjoe.com/2006/09/117_books_to_be.html.

  8. Ahhh! I so remember that end-of-semester-can-read-whatever-I-want feeling from my school days! Enjoy it! Bob gave this book to me for our last anniversay, and I have yet to read it, so it’s really great to be getting your take on it.

  9. Dorothy, you don’t know it but you’ve hugely lightened my heart. The one book of Prose’s I read (about artistic muses) was brilliant, and when I saw this one come out I thought, oh-oh I’d better read it because it’s probably better than anything I could write about reading books. To know that you think it has flaws gives me hope… I’m sure that’s an uncharitable attitude, but hopefully you’ll know what I mean!

  10. I just love that her name is Prose!

    Her teaching style does sound like it would be deathly, but maybe she is incredibly charismatic and can pull it off. Still, aspects of the book sound interesting.

  11. i’ve heard so much about this book lately but right now I’ve imposed a moratorium on “how to write” books since I get overwhelmed with all of the advise. This book seems like it could be particularly valuable for graduate programs that throw ph.d’s and m.f.a.’s into the same literature courses. I personally really like literary theory but most of my fellow mfa’s did not and most of the ph.d’s hated having mfa’s in the classes…there was a big divide. This book might help a bit with pedagogy, if nothing else?

    I was the geek who took extra lit theory courses as electives.

  12. I hope you enjoy it Emily — I’d like to hear what you think of it when you get there. Litlove, most definitely you have no need to worry. I think you’re doing something different than Prose is (from what I can tell), but even if you weren’t, I’m certain yours would be better — not to be uncharitable, of course :) Jess — I’d like to see what here class is like to see how she does it. Courtney, yes, I think it will help with pedagogy. There was a similar split in my program between English folks and people who wanted masters degrees in teaching — a lot of misunderstanding and dislike. Too bad!

  13. Pingback: Reading Like A Writer « Tales from the Reading Room

  14. Pingback: How Novels Work « Of Books and Bicycles

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