During an exchange of comments following one of my recent posts on ‘Residues of Reading‘, I mentioned a stimulating book by Francine Prose (yes, that’s her real name!), and I’d now like to tell you a bit more about it.
The author, a New Yorker, has written twenty works of fiction and is also well known as a biographer, critic, essayist, and teacher of literature and creative writing. Near the beginning of Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them, Francine Prose records in these words an uncomfortable insight that came to her after some years as a classroom teacher who’d begun by seeing her role as a ‘cheerleader for literature’:
I liked my students, who were often so eager, bright and enthusiastic that it took me years to notice how much trouble they had in reading a fairly simple short story. Almost simultaneously I was struck by how little attention they had been taught to pay to the language, to the actual words and sentences that a writer had used. Instead, they had been encouraged to form strong, critical, and often negative opinions…. They had been instructed to prosecute or defend these authors, as if in a court of law, on charges having to do with the writers’ origins, their racial, cultural and class backgrounds…. No wonder my students found it so stressful to read!
So she changed the way she taught. There would be no more general discussions of character and plot and half-baked readers’ opinions. Instead she made it her practice to begin at the beginning and work very gradually through a text with her students. This meant lingering over phrases, considering the effect of sentence structure, and so on.
Her book shows how important it is for a student (or any reader) to slow down and scrutinise the texture of the writing – noticing the subtle nuances evoked by an author’s selection of one particular word rather than another, the different ways in which a sequence of clauses can unfurl their meanings, the significant details of paragraphing, the implications of a chosen narrative point of view, and so on.
I’ve adapted those summary remarks above from an article written last year for English in Australia in which I recommended Prose’s book and discussed similar approaches to teaching literature in Australian school classrooms.
The practical emphasis that I wanted to endorse is on developing students’ sensitivity to connotations of language through close observation of short fictional texts, so that they can become confident about moving from the particular to the general.
(For an excerpt from my article, click on the cover image at left .)
Back to Prose’s book. Reading Like a Writer appeals to me for several related reasons. One is that it pursues its argument through a series of persuasive examples of close reading. Francine Prose astutely analyses a wide range of passages from various fiction writers, including famous names – Austen, Chekhov, Dickens, Nabokov, Babel, Mansfield, Kleist, Beckett and others…along with several I hadn’t encountered before. Her commentary has ignited or re-ignited my enthusiasm for many stories.
Another thing I like about this book is that it affirms the value of reading heedfully. Although I can absorb a newspaper article in quick time, when it comes to serious fiction my habit has always been slow-motion perusal. I enjoy pausing and re-reading to savour the rhythm of a sentence, question the choice of this or that word, or think about the way a chapter has been constructed. So I applaud Prose’s advocacy of unhurried pacing.
A third virtue of Reading Like a Writer is that its illuminating observations about narrative technique are valuable for those of us who practice or teach or study creative writing. Nobody can write well without learning to read well. The two activities are symbiotic. As writers we hope to find readers who will re-enact something of our creative process by looking up reflectively from the page – as we ourselves do when we shape it – and looking back attentively again, letting the language do its intricate work.
In The Pleasure of the Text (trans. Richard Miller) Roland Barthes says, ‘What I enjoy in a narrative is not directly its content or even its structure, but rather the abrasions I impose upon the fine surface: I read on, I look up, I dip in again.’ He adds that a text is most pleasurable ‘if, reading it, I am led to look up often.’
Now that’s reading like a writer.