Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose
The Gift of Writing and the Keenness of Reading
Writing is an easy skill that everybody can master with perseverance and exercise. From a simple school composition to very complex novels or academic papers, all writings have a certain degree of craftiness. But how do we know which of us is reaching beyond the polished surface. Which of us has the GIFT.
Francine Prose's book is about recognizing this gift of writing as readers, and make us aware of our own potential as writers. Here is what she says: 'Too often students are being taught to read as if literature were some kind of ethics class or civic class - or worse, some kind of self-help manual. In fact, the important thing is the way the writer uses the language'.
Chapter after chapter, Prose decodes the secrets of great pieces of literature. The book discusses specific topics:
Close Reading, Words, Sentences, Paragraphs, Narration, Character, Dialogue, Details, Gesture.
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Close Reading - All writers learn the craft by reading and writing;
Words - the right word gives you the right feeling, the right image; reading word by word is the best way to learn; "it's essential to slow down and read every word. (...) language is the medium we use in much the same way a composer uses notes. (...) it's surprising how easily we lose sight of the fact that words are the row material out of which literature is crafted." p. 17-18
Sentences - look for clarity, economy and comprehensibility of the writing that tells more in one sentence then in a whole page of not so good writing;
Paragraphs - rhythm, dissonances, the ending of a paragraph that makes us to keep reading; "Paragraphs are a form of emphasis. What appears at the start and end of the paragraph has (again, if we except passages such as the one from Desperate Characters[by Paula Fox]) great weight then what appears in the middle." p.76
Narration - who is narrating and who are the listeners? is the story narrated like real people would tell it to a friend? there is much variation, lots of possibilities "to consider as we choose how to narrate our stories and novels. Deciding on the narrator's identity, and personality, is an important step. But it is only a step. What really matters is what happens after that-the language that the writer uses to interest and engage us in the vision and the version of events that we know as fiction." p.108
Character - look for the words they speak, the actions they do, the way they feel, the way they are dress,etc., how much a writer reveals and how much the readers have to unravels about a character of a book.
Dialogue - one of the hardest skill to master; a good dialog sounds like a real talk but is much improved, it tells not only what words describe but has an underlining meaning: "when we humans speak, we are not merely communicating information but attempting to make an impression and achieve a goal. And sometimes we are hoping to prevent the listener from noticing what we are not saying, which is often not merely distracting but, we fear, as audible as what we are saying. As a result, dialogue contains as much or even more subtext then it does text. More is going on under the surface than on it." p.144
Details - God is in details; details make a story trustworthy; our lives are made out of details;
Gesture - avoiding the cliches is, at list, a must for a writer; gestures describe acharacter, his position in society, his/her feelings, his/her unspoken words; "my definition of gesture includes small phisical actions, often unconscious or semi reflexive, including what is called body language and excluding larger, more definite or momentuous actions." p.210
Each chapter brings up one or more very successful writers and their way of writing. There's Jane Austin and Keist for character building, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Virginia Woolf for paragraphs, Henry Green and David Gates for dialogs, and many others: Joyce, Kafka, Flannery O'Connor, Katherine Mansfield, Raymond Carver, Jane Bowles, James Baldwin, Alice Munro, which were the author's models and teachers.
At the end of the book is a list of 'Books to Be Read Immediately' with over 120 entries. The list is protected by copywrite and cannot be reproduced but it contains names like (in alphabetical order): Akutagawa, Jean Austen, Isaac Babel, Balzac, Emily Bronte, Italo Calvino, Cervantes, Raymond Chandler, Chehov, Dickens, Dostoievski, George Eliot, Flaubert, David Gates, Gogol, James Henry, Denis Johnson, Kafka, John LeCarre, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Melville, Nabukov, Flannery O'Connor, Proust, Philip Roth, Salinger, Shakespeare, Lev Tolstoi (Leo Tolstoy), Turgheniev (Turgenev), William Trevor, Rebecca West and many others.
Francine Prose was born in 1947, in Brooklyn, NY. She built her carrier as a writer while being a book reviewer. She has also taught creative writing and literature to major Universities. She had won several awards for her fiction works. Some of her novels are: Blue Angel, Hungry Hearts, A change Man, Goldengrove. In between 2007 and 2009, Francine Prose was the president of PEN American Center.