Sunday, March 23, 2008

Review: Reading Like A Writer

Reading Like A Writer, by Francine Prose
8/10, A useful analysis of writing with excerpts from some of the greats

One of the best parts of "Reading Like A Writer" is the examples she brings in from writers she esteems. In a few cases, I was left scratching my head, but most of the writing really is superb. I'm a firm believer in teaching by example, and so, apparently, is Prose. She picks passages from books and shows us what she loves about them, breaking the book into sections as basic as word choice and sentence structure and moving on to more complicated sections like dialogue and gesture.

I found the word choice and sentence structure sections rather slow. I appreciate the wonder of a well-crafted sentence, but I believe you can get by with those painstakingly constructed sentences at key points in your book: the beginning and the end, most notably (I agonized over the last sentence of "Common and Precious" for a week, and in the end, it's still not as good as I would like it), but also at breaks in the story, chapter beginnings and endings, and at key emotional moments. If you agonize over every sentence in your novel, you will take a decade to write it. For some people, that's fine; my writing is not that good, so I have to rely more heavily on story and character.

She writes about constructing paragraphs, which is a useful if somewhat dry section, and then gets into the meat of the book: story, character, and flow, the things that give a book texture and life. Don't get me wrong: you need the foundation to be able to move on the wallpaper and decor. That doesn't make the foundation any less dry. It was the later parts of the book that inspired me to re-examine my own writing, and to want to read some of the authors she excerpted (most notably Gertrude Stein).

This is a melange of an instructional manual for writers and an homage to great writers. The short excerpts give the reader the feeling that they, too, can do this with just a little extra work. After all, it's laid out so clearly here, and in short, digestible bites. That kind of confidence is invaluable for a writer, and is one of the best points of this book. Once you close the last page, it remains with you.

1 comment:

NED! said...

Just some comment you made about the book being a melange of writing advice and homage to favorite writers made me think of that Frank O'Connor Essay or criticism of the short story form, "The Lonely Voice." There is one edition I have that breaks it up and includes the different short stories he used as examples. I remember aching to "get" what he meant about the nature of the short story and feeling that somehow I missed the point, but that is all I remember now.

That and the alamo.