I read and enjoyed Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them, but something about it bothered me. Prose argues that writing is learned by reading other works and emulating them:
In the ongoing process of becoming a writer, I read and re-read authors I most loved. I read for pleasure, first, but also more analytically, conscious of style, of diction, of how sentences were formed and information was being conveyed, how the writer was structuring the plot, creating characters, employing detail and dialogue. … 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.
I agree very strongly with this. Where I begin to be concerned is in her analysis of specific examples, and not any one of them but rather the whole way she discusses close reading.
She breaks her book into chapters covering Words, Sentences, Paragraphs, Narration, Character, Dialogue and other elements of fiction, but her examples and the way she unloads these examples are, or seem to me to be, rather pedantic. I don’t feel I learned much about reading or writing. Rather it was all about analyzing.
I’m not the only reviewer to note this. Brien Michael in his review at The Quarterly Conversation pointed out that “the book’s approach has much to do with Prose’s astute observations in the classroom” and “that Prose is surviving a tempestuous marriage with the academy.”
One of the fundamental problems with Prose’s approach is that we must depend on her to summarize the story up to that point or beyond so that we can make sense of what she’s doing. Even if we’ve read The Great Gatsby (it’s been since high school for me), it’s unlikely we could focus on the particular point without Prose’s attentions. She’s urging us to be brazenly intimate with a text while forcing us to rely on her introductions. It’s clear that the approach works much better in the context of a classroom, where the focus is on one story or one book, and it might have been more effective in Prose’s book if one text had been the focus of each chapter. Prose could have more closely replicated the pedagogical approach she employs in the classroom, and we would have been far less likely to misplace our own enthusiasm for the text—or our respect for her skill in unpacking it—in the abundance of illustrations.
If the technique is developed in the classroom and requires a classroom to explain, then Prose isn’t talking about how a writer reads so much as how a professor reads.
Perhaps her direction is indicative of the way certain writers operate in the modern teaching-mill marketplace. Carlo Gébler certainly claims something of this sort about himself in his recent essay at Some Blind Alleys, stating unequivocally that “I started as an amateur, but at some point – I do not know when it happened; I only know that it happened – I became a professional, and once I became a professional my relationship to the world in general and to reading in particular changed utterly.”
I never simply enjoy the act of reading anymore. My authorial intelligence is totally and fully engaged. When I read, whatever I read, I examine and analyze. This is partly in order to judge the artifact and rank it, but also, and perhaps mostly, I am doing this so that I can learn from it. I want to know what I can appropriate. You could say – in fact, I will say it – I read primarily to steal. This attitude applies not just to books but to everything. In every situation, whatever it is, whether private or public, personal or impersonal, happy or sad, interesting or boring, exotic or quotidian, while part of me is involved and interacting and apparently sympathetic and human, there is another part of my personality that is scrutinizing my experiences and thinking two terrible things: What’s in this for me? And: Can I use this? Can I put it in a story? Can I put it in an article?
Gébler is no longer learning from reading so much as, in his words, cannibalizing. He blames the marketplace for forcing him to evolve from an “author” into a “writer and teacher.” He is bitter, but Prose seems mainly positively about the transformation. I suspect the truth is somewhere in between.