August 22, 2007

Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer

This book has a simple premise--that the best way for aspiring writers to learn their craft is to read (closely, attentively, alertly, appreciatively) the work of other novelists. Prose proceeds to elaborate on what she sees as the pedagogical benefit of close reading by moving through a sequence of chapters addressing specific aspects of novel-writing, each illustrated with examples from writers she admires. Her intended audience is primarily creative writing students; she offers her close-reading approach as a counter-balance to what she describes as the fundamentally negative tactics of writing workshops: "Though it also doles out praise, the writing workshop most often focuses on what a writer has done wrong, what needs to be fixed, cut, or augmented. Whereas reading a masterpiece can inspire us by showing us how a writer does something brilliantly" (11). I'm not in a position to evaluate how well either strategy would work for someone trying to produce an original work of fiction, though it does seem to me that Prose's emphasis on writing as a craft that presents technical challenges needing to be acknowledged and worked through intellectually (rather than transcended through inspiration) is probably useful.

Prose's subtitle ("A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them") suggests that she also hopes to appeal to and help out avid readers (the same ones who might pick up Smiley's Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Novel or Sutherland's How to Read a Novel. It may be this hope that leads Prose to avoid most specialized vocabulary. For instance, in her chapter on narration, she acknowledges briefly that there are types of narrators ("should the narrator be first or third person, close or omniscient?" [85]) but does not explain in any systematic way just what these options are or that they are not exhaustive. As a result, her discussion of examples tends towards the impressionistic, rather than the analytical; she often seems to take for granted, too, that her reader will recognize the qualities she admires or finds effective, that she does not need to explain or justify her praise or her interpretation. Here is some of her commentary on a long quotation from Richard Price's Freedomland:
Everything in the paragraph contributes to the speaker's credibility, as a fictional character and as an honest human being: the diction, the rhythms, the slight repetitions for emphasis, the way that the tenses keep shifting from present to past and back. The choice of words and phrases ("used to like his cocktails," "never raised a hand," "passed on") make us feel that this is how this woman might really recount an incident from her life. The language, the story itself, the specificity of the details (Jimmy Durante singing "September Song") convince us that the woman is telling the truth. (91)
I can tell that she is convinced, but she has not explained the basis of her conviction to me in a persuasive or useful way. What aspects of the speaker's diction are indicative of credibility and honesty? Why should including specific details convince us that someone is telling the truth? What are the signposts of unreliability?

I was also concerned at times about the qualities of Prose's own reading. In some cases, she seemed to me an unduly trusting reader. Here's some of her commentary on the opening scene of Pride and Prejudice, for example:
Lest we receive a skewed or harsh impression of the Bennets' own marriage, Mr. Bennet compliments his wife by suggesting that she is as handsome as their daughters. In fact, as we are discovering, theirs is a harmonious union, and indeed the whole conversation, with its intimacy, its gentle teasing, and with Mr. Bennet's joking reference to his old friendship with his wife's nerves, is a double portrait of a happy couple. (127)
Well, maybe, and the same needs to be said about her confidence in Nelly Dean as "the most credible witness" in Wuthering Heights. But she writes well about the significance of details (they "aren't only the building blocks with which a story is put together, they're also clues to something deeper, keys not merely to our subconscious but to our historical moment" [207].

I think that what struck me as weaknesses in the book, particularly in its analysis of particular examples, come at least in part from Prose's own deliberate distancing of herself from academic approaches to literature. "Only once," she tells us in her account of her own development as a writer,
did my passion for reading steer me in the wrong direction, and that was when I let it persuade me to go to graduate school. There, I soon realized that my love for books was unshared by many of my classmates and professors. I found it hard to understand what they did love, exactly, and this gave me an anxious shiver that would later seem like a warning about what would happen to the teaching of literature over the decade or so after I dropped out of my Ph.D. program. That was when literary academia split into warring camps of deconstructionists, Marxists, feminists, and so forth, all battling for the right to tell students that they were reading "texts" in which ideas and politics trumped what the writer had actually written. (8)
I have written before on this blog about my own frustrations with aspects of "literary academia," but I have also resisted (even resented) this kind of dismissive attitude to scholarly and theoretical expertise. It is possible to turn such expertise (including attention to ideas and politics) precisely to understanding "what the writer had actually written," and the result will be a better, fuller reading--and thus, if Prose's own pedagogical theory is correct, better new books.

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