Like Writing Down the Bones, Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose is one of the books where I look at the cover and I’m pretty sure I’ve seen it before, but I have no memory of ever having read it. I can’t help but think that this was a book I used to stare at longingly on the shelf at the bookstore back before I had money to spend on these types of things. Or maybe it was assigned reading from one of my undergraduate writing classes.
Anyway, Reading Like a Writer was the fourth most popular book about writing on Goodreads when I started this project in 2018. Here are some thoughts.
Reading Great Works to study the craft of writing
This book is the embodiment of the belief that in order to be a writer you must read a lot of Great Literature. At the end of the book, Prose states that the purpose of this practice is “to confront this problem of roses versus weeds in the company of geniuses.” If you want to create a rose garden (Great Literature), she argues, you should start by visiting rose gardens (Great Literature) and seeing them the way a rose gardener (a Great Writer) would.
I mean, sure. But does everyone want to create a rose garden? Some people prefer vegetables. Would looking at a rose garden help you that much if you were trying to create a vegetable garden?
I don’t necessarily disagree that there is value in reading great works of literature and studying the writing in them. But so many of the examples Prose uses are at least a hundred years old. SO MANY. She even mentions this herself at one point, saying she could have used examples from more recent works but that she felt they wouldn’t be as relatable. IDK
Personally, I feel like if you’re going to read a book with the intention of studying the writing in the book to become a better writer yourself, then you should choose a book that represents the type of writing you yourself would like to produce. Studying the work of Henry James is going to be most useful to writers who would like to write like Henry James (though whether anyone is publishing that type of writing anymore is maybe an issue for another time). If you want to write thrillers, study thrillers. If you want to write romance novels, study romance novels.
If you want to create a vegetable garden, study other vegetable gardens is what I’m saying. But don’t just study other vegetable gardens. Study other kinds of gardens too because there might be something there you can use.
Quoted passages as an instructional tool
One thing you can’t fault Prose for is the loving and beautiful way that she examines passages from her favorite books. These types of long, quoted passages are a common feature of the writing advice books on the list.
I…tend to skip over them.
Even in a book like this where so much of the content is quoted passages from other works followed by a detailed discussion of those passages. Which means I am basically failing at the fundamental lesson that this book is trying to teach.
For whatever reason, passages of text taken out of context tend to be so much static or white noise to me. Which is to say, Prose gives a lot of context for each passage. Like, a lot. Maybe a little too much in places. That helps. But I feel like in order to fully understand the value of the chosen passages, I would need to first see them in their natural habitat. Like, I would need to first read Prose’s discussion, then read the whole book myself, then come back and reread Prose’s discussion of that one passage. A structure like that works well for a writing class where I imagine there would be some setup, then you’d do the reading outside of class, then the discussion of the relevant parts would happen in class. I’m not sure the same structure works as well for a writing book. At least not for me.
I really want to read The Marquise of O–
The Marquise of O– is a novella by Heinrich von Kleist that Prose summarizes in detail (but without too many spoilers) in the chapter on character. The novella is centered on the story of a respectable woman who becomes pregnant but can’t remember how it happened. It sounds bizarre and fascinating. I immediately did a search for it in my library’s catalog and found we have several copies plus a streaming version of a movie based on the book.
Research as observing life
Another theme that comes up in writing advice books a lot is the importance of studying the people and settings around you in order to be able to write more authentically, which I consider a form of research, though not necessarily the one I was looking for when I first started this project. Prose discusses this most explicitly in a chapter on gestures, which is also where she takes the time to kind of mock the quality of writing in a made-for-TV movie and a mass market paperback. Her advice is that, unlike in these examples, you should only record a character’s movement or gestures if they add something important, rather than just to create space in dialogue. And that you should observe others in order to learn about gestures.
First, I will admit to being very, very guilty of what Prose is talking about: using gestures to create a beat because I need some space between dialogue. My characters are constantly looking down at their hands, clearing their throats, tapping their fingers, chewing on their pens, whatever. A little of that probably isn’t a bad thing. But it’s something that I see myself doing as I write and I’m aware that I’m doing it too much but promise myself I’ll revise it out later.
The thing is, I don’t think observing people will tell you anything about how to use gestures to add to a story. Because gestures in real life don’t add to our stories. I mean, they do. The way we use our hands when we talk is an important part of creating meaning, probably. But we’re not purposely using our gestures to deliberately say something about ourselves.
Which is why I think Prose’s second piece of advice, which is to watch the way actors use gesture, is more useful because good actors are pretty deliberate about this and they put a lot of thought into how to use gesture and movement to help create a character.
But now I want to read a book about acting to help me write better gestures. Damn it.
So my personal opinion on Reading Like a Writer is that I can see why it’s among the most popular creative writing books even though it wasn’t for me. And though it doesn’t have anything to say about research as a process for filling in a gap in knowledge, it’s pretty much the epitome of a discussion on research as a study of craft.