Prose, Francine. Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them.

NY: HarperCollins, 2006.

In addition to having been a librarian for more than three decades, I also have been a freelance, self-employed developmental editor and copyeditor for nearly as long. I’ve earned a useful supplemental income reading manuscripts, both fiction and nonfiction, and making well-considered suggestions not about plot and character development — that’s the job of the author’s agent and publisher — but about word choice, grammar, sentence structure, and chapter organization. (Stuff like “Using ‘anybody’ jars the flow here; try ‘anyone’, which has one less syllable. And consider making this a one-sentence paragraph to emphasize your point.”) It’s a knack. Of course, I’ve also been a heavy reader all my life, since even before I started school. After I began reading like an editor, though, I found myself unconsciously thinking about the words the author had chosen in whatever narrative I was currently engaged in.

Francine Prose (what a felicitous name for an author!) is an advocate, practically an apostle, of the practice of “close reading.” Modern critics tend to concentrate on an author’s biography, political beliefs, and other not very relevant matters rather than examining the beauty (or not) of the writing itself, the language the author determines to use. Prose developed her approach to this by teaching literature and writing classes — something a great many published writers do, between the appearance of their first couple of novels (by which they establish their credibility) and reaching the exalted heights of multiple best-seller-dom (if they ever do).

She begins at the atomic level, with words, which are to writing what notes are to music. Using examples as dissimilar as Flannery O’Connor and Herman Melville, she works her way step by step through a piece of prose, showing how careful word choice can promote a paragraph from good to perfect. Writing is the product of thousands of these small decisions. (And rewriting is everything.) Then she considers the sentence in the same fashion, and then the paragraph. In the matter of narration, the author argues that who is telling the story is less important than who is hearing it, and under what circumstances. It may be easier to tell a tale to a secret listener, even if that person never appears in the story. Some famous novels (those by Dostoevsky come to mind) feature characters who explicitly reel off their whole life stories to strangers, though modern readers would find this incredible in real life. The chapter on character is a bit weak compared to what came before, with Prose giving lengthy examples from Austen, Eliot, Flaubert, and Heinrich von Kleist (whom I confess I’ve never read), but never really getting into the theory behind character development.

Then she goes on to the problem of dialogue, which young writers are told ought not to resemble conversation in real life, with all its hesitations and stammers, nor should it be made to substitute for exposition. Still, she points out, if one eavesdrops in a coffee shop, one finds that most conversation serves multiple social and psychological purposes, and a fictional narrative can certainly make good use of such multitasking. And what isn’t said can be as important as what is. But well-handled dialogue can also be one of the most effective ways of taking the reader inside the head of the characters, delineating their purposes and motives, and advancing the plot generally. The principal examples she gives in this chapter are from the works of Henry Green, a genuine master of revealing dialogue.

Then comes a chapter on what Prose calls the “details.” Is God really in them? Properly sketched and plausible details in a story are what convince the reader that the narrator is telling the truth. (Police investigators understand this, too.) But what does one do about the plethora of detail with which Kafka describes Gregor Samsa? And sometimes the detail is what you most remember about a story, like the slice of watermelon or the bloody potato in Chekhov. Again, it may be an effect of my editorial activities, but I always notice the “telling details” in a story. Prose’s final section deals with gesture — which, frankly, I would not have identified as one of the major considerations in writing a novel, at the same level as character and dialogue. In fact, I would expect gesture to be more important in film than on the printed page. She makes a good argument for avoiding what she calls “generic” gestures, with interesting examples from Kafka, Joyce, and Henry James, though I think I would have included all this in the chapter on detail.

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Published in: on 28 April 2011 at 4:00 pm  Leave a Comment  
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