Sunday, April 08, 2007

Books that Francine Prose Likes, by Francine Prose

Reading Like a Writer
Francine Prose

This book has garnered such rave reviews, I was a little disappointed when I finally read it. Luckily, I borrowed it from the library instead of just purchasing it, as I would usually do. Victory is mine!

In her attempt to show you how to read like a writer, Prose tackles about a dozen or so major areas of writing: words, sentences, paragraphs, characterization, dialogue, details, narration, and so on. For each section, Prose provides examples of those authors and texts which best illustrate excellence in the given area. Her examples are chosen from a variety of sources, and I was able to pick up quite a few titles to add to my “to read” list.

Prose’s idea is a good one, but the execution is a little, well, off. Maybe it's because I kept expecting Prose to bequeath a great secret. Do this and this, and good writing is yours. That's not quite what happens here. (Nor could it reasonably be expected, but you wouldn't know it from some of the reviews I've read, some of which make it sound as though just reading this book will turn you into Shakespeare.) Instead, we get lots of examples of good writing, some discussion of the techniques at hand, and some autobiographical anecdotes from Prose.

Of course, its very thesis damn near makes the book useless. Prose’s idea is hardly new: if one wishes to write well, one must read well. But read what? "Good" writing, obviously, but the definition of good varies from reader to reader. As regular readers of Bibliolatry already know, even White Apples has its fans. So, basically, Reading Like a Writer will show you Prose’s favorite authors, but a writer may not wish to write like any of these people.

If you want to be a writer, maybe you should just stop procrastinating and start writing. However, if you want to be a reader, then this is the book for you! Just kidding. There's some interesting stuff here. Ultimately, however, the would-be writer must find her own examples of good writing.

In a nutshell: Handy as a reference book, but at some point the would-be writer must actually write. Take a look at it, give it a good once-over, jot down a few notes, move on. And, of course, write, if that's what you're aiming to do, but find your own greats to light your way. If you don't have any, you can always borrow Prose's, but any writer worth her salt should have her own.

Bibliolatry Scale: 3 out of 6 stars


J.S. Peyton said...

Gotta say, I'm with you all the way on this book so far. I must admit, I haven't finished the book yet but I've yet to see exactly why this book received such rave reviews. Yes, she encourages close reading which is always a good thing but much of the information on beautiful sentences and paragraphs and great writers seems highly subjective. And you're spot on: the central thesis of this book - that to write well one must read well - is a true but old horse.

Lesley said...

I got this book last December (my husband selected it off my wishlist for a holiday gift) and it's been sitting unread on my shelf ever since. I added it to the list after reading some rave blogger reviews - too bad I didn't read yours first! Where were you when I needed you, huh?

Bibliolatrist said...

Well, as we'll see, reading it wasn't entirely in vain...I picked a few titles I hadn't heard of. So while I didn't really pick up writing tips, I did add to my reading list!