I thoroughly enjoyed reading Litlove’s and Stefanie’s posts on Francine Prose’s book Reading Like a Writer, and, if you haven’t read them yet, suggest that you go and read them first, and then return here.
I’ve now finished this book, and agree with Stefanie’s comment that the later chapters are better than the earlier ones. These later chapters cover things like character, dialogue, gesture, and detail, and perhaps these things are more complex and therefore more interesting than the topics of the earlier chapters, words, sentences, and paragraphs. At any rate, although my enjoyment of the book increased as I went on, I still have reservations about its quality.
To be fair, though, I’m not sure how I would have written such a book differently. Litlove confesses that she can be a quotation skipper at times, something I do as well, and much of this book is quotation (sometimes they go on for pages and pages). I got a little tired of quotation after quotation and felt that Prose’s analysis was sometimes a bit short and perfunctory. But how would one write this without the quotations? It’s good that the book was short or I would have found it tiresome; as it is, every time boredom threatened, I found I was near the end of a chapter and so contentedly moved on to another topic.
I’m also grateful the book was short (that sounds mean, although I don’t intend it to be) because what I found most valuable about it was the way it inspired me to pay more attention to the technical aspects of fiction, and that can be accomplished without reading something long. I loved Litlove’s point in her post that Prose is reading in a way that would make authors happy — she is pointing out their brilliance, calling attention to how they have carefully crafted their language — which is only one way of reading; another, perhaps deeper, way of reading is to read against the grain — to pay attention to the things an author may not have been so conscious of, to read subversively, as Litlove says. I’m trained to read in this latter way, and yet I’m intrigued by the former, by Prose’s attention to technical details. All this is to say that I’m grateful for Prose’s reminder of the pleasure to be found in enjoying a well-crafted sentence or bit of dialogue or a masterfully-chosen detail. Also I’m thinking about the technical aspects of writing more and more as I read my friend’s novel and talk with her about it and as I talk with Hobgoblin about his own writing process. All these things have added up to a fun glimpse into a writer’s life.
One more thing — my favorite chapter in Prose’s book is one near the end called “Learning from Chekhov”; here, Prose describes teaching a fiction writing class where her students notice the way she gives them advice about writing but then qualifies it and cites exceptions and backtracks, so much so that this turns into a class joke. She gives example after example of “rules” she has offered her students and then describes the almost eerie way she reads a Chekhov story after class that invariably breaks the rule. She tells a student that he needs to distinguish his two main characters more, and then reads a Chekhov story that has two main characters with the same name, for example, or she’ll tell a student to clarify a story’s point of view and then read a Chekhov story where the point of view similarly shifts.
I like this way of making a point that Prose has been developing throughout: that there really are no rules to fiction writing. It’s not that people sometimes break the rules; it’s that there are no rules. If I were a writer, I might find this idea a little bit terrifying (Prose’s students wanted some guidance, and I can understand why); as a reader, I find it completely freeing — I’m free to enjoy the infinite number of ways a story can be told.