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05 June 2007

Reading Like A Reader

Last year, soon after it was published, I started reading reviews and blog posts about Francine Prose's book, Reading Like A Writer: A guide for people who love books and for those who want to write them". It seemed that there was no middle-ground: either the review/blogger loved the book, or he hated it. I had seen the book in the store before I had read discussion of it on-line and I had been intrigued by the title. But, I felt like I didn't need someone to tell me how to read, so it was placed back on the shelf. Later, after reading so many items about this book, I did buy a copy because I wanted to read Prose for myself.

I read the first four chapters soon after I got the book. I put the book down after those four chapters and didn't pick it up again until I read Dorothy's post a few weeks ago about it. Litlove and Stephanie also wrote about it recently. Since I was on a spree to complete several in-process books over the holiday weekend, I picked this one up & started it where I left off.

There were marks and comments in the margins of the first few chapters -- obviously I had reacted to reading the text -- but I could not remember anything significant about the book. That should have told me something about this book. I began reading it determined to complete it, and did so. Now a week later, I struggle once again to remember something distinctive in this book.

Prose's book doesn't cover anything that someone with more than one or two introductory classes in literature shouldn't have already learned. This could be an additional text for a beginning creative writing class. She dissects texts to offer up examples of fine writing, starting with the basic unit -- words -- and working her way through sentences, paragraphs, narration, etc. Some of the works she cites inarguably are examples of fine writing. Some of them, for the avid reader, are not unfamiliar, and one can appreciate Prose's efforts to find such wonderful examples to support her points.

Yet, I don't think that I learned anything new from this book. Her book may be a guide to an aspiring writer, but I think that it would have to be one who hasn't yet studied much about writing.

Is it for readers? I don't think so. I think that people who are avid readers do not need an instructive text on how a writer might approach creating a literary work. Aspiring and beginning writers might benefit. In the early chapters Prose writes about how a close reading of a text is beneficial to the writer. In fact, she suggests that this could be a better approach than a writing workshop.

I read closely, word by word, sentence by sentence, pondering each deceptively minor decision that the writer had made. And though it's impossible to recall every source of inspiration and instruction, I can remember the novels and stories that seemed to me revelations: wells of beauty and pleasure that were also textbooks, private lessons in the art of fiction.

This book is intended partly as a response to that unavoidable question about how writers learn to do something that cannot be taught. What writers know is that, ultimately, we learn to write by practice, hard work, by repeated trial and error, success and failure, and from the books we admire. And so the book that follows represents an effort to recall my own education as a novelist and to help the passionate reader and would-be writer understand how a writer reads.

Prose writes about how it is reading that taught her to how to write, not writing classes. She says that the writing workshop is beneficial to learn to line-edit, but it is from reading that she learned how to write. I'm not sure why, in the initial chapters, she tries to advantage the reading of good writers over writing workshops. If such workshops teach one how to line edit, isn't that also what a close word-by-word reading would do by example? Can you do one without the exposure to the other? Is this really a dichotomy that should exist?

More importantly, does this really matter to the "passionate reader"? I'm not sure that there is one way to read a work. I think that even an unschooled reader, that is one who hasn't been introduced (is indoctrinated too strong a word?) to literary studies, can certainly enjoy a work of literature without needing to be able to dissect the manner in which the writer developed the character. One can read a short story by Chekov (Prose discusses his work extensively) and enjoy the pleasure of reading a story, perhaps connecting to it on an emotional level. On a different level, the same reader could reflect on how Chekov crafted his story, analyzing the way in which it was built, the seemingly effortless technique used to develop his characters. This leads to a different appreciation of the story and a deeper understanding of Chekov as a master craftsman of the short story, but does not necessarily reflect a closer -- or better -- reading of the text. This is just a different kind of reading of the text. Prose is right that would-be writers should study the examples of well-known authors and their works in this manner, but I don't think it is a necessary approach for "people who love books".

Then again, maybe I only think this because it took me nearly 20 years after earning my Masters to detox from the academic bs that had tainted my enjoyment of reading. Sure, I can discuss works using the terms of literary analysis and criticism -- and sometimes I do in this blog. But, sometimes, there is just a sheer joy in reading and it's okay to say "Wow! That book was great!" because that's all that needs to be said.

4 comments:

litlove said...

Well, I have to agree with all that you say, Cam! I haven't finished the book yet (I did the same as you - 4 chapters then put it down) but it's not really a book you could learn anything from. I'm making myself a nice list of authors I want to read from it, however!

Imani said...

How dare you Cam, think that such book commentary is as equal a response as deft literary criticism. You are lowering the tone of the discourse!

;)

Dorothy W. said...

I found this book useful because of the way it inspired me to think about writing more carefully -- to notice the kind of details she points out -- but beyond inspiration, you're right, it didn't offer a whole lot.

Anonymous said...

Goodness me, I just remembered that I'd started this a month or two ago, started posting on it as I read it, then haven't picked it up to finish since!

I think you've gotten the idea right, although I think that it might serve as reinforcement or a reminder of the way we've learned to read. Added insight is just that--a bonus to the enjoyment of the story.

susan @ spinning