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Reading Like A Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them Hardcover – Aug 3 2006
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. The trick to writing, Prose writes, is reading—carefully, deliberately and slowly. While this might seem like a no-brainer, Prose (Blue Angel; A Changed Man) masterfully meditates on how quality reading informs great writing, which will warm the cold, jaded hearts of even the most frustrated, unappreciated and unpublished writers. Chapters treat the nuts and bolts of writing (words, sentences, paragraphs) as well as issues of craft (narration, character, dialogue), all of which Prose discusses using story or novel excerpts. This is where the book truly shines; Prose is remarkably egalitarian in choosing exemplars of fiction: David Gates, Denis Johnson, John le Carré and ZZ Packer, for instance, are considered as seriously as Chekhov, Melville, Flaubert or Babel. Prose insists that "literature not only breaks the rules, but makes us realize that there are none," and urges writers to re-read the classics (Chekhov, especially) and view "reading as something that might move or delight you." Prose's guide to reading and writing belongs on every writer's bookshelf alongside E.M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel. (Aug.)
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From School Library Journal
Adult/High School–Life is precious, and much of that preciousness lies in the details: the sights, the sounds, the scents we too often ignore in our busy lives. Prose makes a superb application of that concept for readers of fiction. To know how the great writers create their magic, one needs to engage in a close reading of the masters, for that is precisely what successful writers have done for thousands of years. College programs in creative writing and summer workshops serve a purpose, but they can never replace a careful reading of the likes of Austen, Dostoyevsky, Flaubert, Kafka, Salinger, Tolstoy, and Woolf. In this excellent guide, Prose explains exactly what she means by close reading, drawing attention to the brick and mortar of outstanding narratives: words, sentences, paragraphs, character, dialogue, details, and more. In the process, she does no less than escort readers to a heightened level of appreciation of great literature. Many will want to go to the shelves to read again, or for the first time, the books she discusses. And to aid them, she thoughtfully adds a list at the end: Books to Be Read Immediately.–Robert Saunderson, Berkeley Public Library, CA
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Top Customer Reviews
I thoroughly enjoyed this book: I particularly liked Ms Prose's suggestion that although writing workshops can be helpful, the best way to learn how to write is to read widely. Ms Prose encourages readers to read closely, to read every word and pay attention to the words used. Reading like a writer requires, perhaps, a different blend of the reading skills used in some other occupations. Words, for writers, are the `raw material out of which literature is crafted'. Words, for readers, constitute a finished work. Ms Prose suggests that the reader consider each word used and ask: `.. what sort of information is each word - each word choice - trying to convey?' For some of us, that conscious slowing down of reading won't always be easy.
`Details are what persuade us that someone is telling the truth - a fact that every liar knows instinctively and too well.'
There's advice about words, sentences, and paragraphs, about narration and character, about dialogue, details and gestures. What makes this advice come alive is the examples Ms Prose gives, and the writers whose work she draws on to demonstrate the points she makes. This leads to a list of book recommendations which inevitably, in my case, adds books to my personal `must read' list. But I'm drawn most immediately to want to read more work by Anton Chekhov. I like the way in which Ms Prose drew on her own reading of Chekhov's short stories, found examples of how he had successfully broken the `rules' of fiction writing which contradicted advice she had given her students.Read more ›
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Prose discusses the basics, including the use of the exact word, sentence building, paragraphing, point of view, character, and dialogue. Close reading, she asserts, enables us to understand not only what the writer is stating, but also what he is implying. The subtext is often as important, if not more important, than the text itself. Throughout "Reading Like a Writer" are excerpts, some brief, some lengthy, from a variety of sources, followed by Prose's witty, insightful, and informative commentary. Why does the writer choose one particular word or phrase rather than another? How do the seemingly minor details and gestures in a scene sometimes convey more information than the characters' statements?
"Reading Like a Writer" is not a handbook or a manual. It is a love letter to the mysterious alchemy, the magic that occurs when a reader encounters a book, poem, or story that not only entertains him, but also moves and transforms him. Francine Prose's favorite writers may not be our favorites, but all readers who love literature will appreciate her enthusiasm and respect for the written word. Her suggestions about how to read more effectively are useful not just for budding writers but for anyone who would like to come away from a book with a deeper appreciation of the author's craft. As Prose says, "Reading this way requires a certain amount of stamina, concentration, and patience."" The reward for all of this effort lies in "the excitement of approaching, as nearly as you can hope to come, the hand and mind of the artist."
As you advance through the chapters you will find examples covering the fundamentals of writing, including aspects related to narrative, plot development, characters creation, as well as the basics of sentence and paragraph structure.
Even if you have no intention at all of becoming a writer you will love this book, since it also teaches us how to have a better appreciation of what we read.
What I expected was a series of examples with analysis of what made them work or not work. There were far fewer examples than I expected, the analysis was typically slight, and there was too much extraneous material.
For example, in the chapter on "Sentences", too much of the commentary on the examples was simply effusive praise of the sentence's author. I strongly disagreed with Prose's assessment of roughly a third of the sentences cited, but she didn't provide enough analysis for me to understand her point of view (declarations of something as great is not an argument).
In the chapter on "Paragraphs", the author starts with an example from Babel's "Crossing into Poland." At first I thought it strange to be using a translated work as an example, but then she presented another translation as a counterpoint. I then thought "What a brilliant way to get examples of the effects of the differences in choices by two professional writers." However, she failed to effectively follow through. Also, I differed with her on the analysis of the passage in question: "... the highroad ... built ... upon the bones of peasants." Her analysis was that it "introduced some element of unease." My analysis was that it -- the thought pattern and jargon -- simply identified the protagonist as a Marxist-Leninist (In discussing the related "My First Goose", Prose identifies the protagonist as a follower of Lenin).
In the next portion of "Paragraphs", Prose rambles about the Rex Stout mystery "Plot It Yourself" that hinges on how the paragraph choices were made in three documents. She give less specific insight than you would find in a brief introduction to composition, and essentially punts the issue, saying it is something that has significant impact, but that each writer must develop their own ear for it.
The first part of the chapter on "Character" focuses on von Kleist's novella "The Marquise of O-." It present a few passages which are useful illustrations. However, she spends inordinate time on the plot, far beyond what is needed - or useful - to appreciate those passages. I found the disorganized repeated rehashing of the plot elements to be annoying. This might not have been so bad if she hadn't started the chapter with a digression on one college class where she had assigned the novella.
Each of the chapters had similar problems. This was a book that I couldn't help putting down, but because of the many positive reviews, I kept picking it back up. I didn't get to the end of most of the chapters: When I found I couldn't tolerate anymore of a chapter, I skipped to the beginning of the next one to see if it was any better.
Review of Reviews: When you read the other reviews, ask yourself "Is the reviewer praising the concept of the book, or its implementation?" Is the reviewer talking about being "inspired" - or "motivated" - to learn from reading more closely, or has s/he actually learned an appropriate amount from this book (of 268 pages). That is, is the reviewer responding to the author's gushing about great writing and her teaching of literature, or to the book providing useful insight on how to be a better reader and/or writer?
BACKGROUND / CONTEXT of my review: By profession, I am a senior engineer/scientist and have done extensive technical writing, but I have also done extensive advocacy writing - marketing (advocacy of products and services) and political (advocacy of ideas).
I am a staunch believer in "close reading" as a way to *learn* better writing, and encourage it by involving all members of my teams in the rewriting/editing process (but without taking it anywhere near the extent that occurs in literary criticism). Less experienced writers are not just given advice on improving their documents, but are expected to provide suggestions on improving documents written by better writers.
So what to put in the new improved version? Besides an index, start with losing the references that were written before, say, 1960. It's obvious Ms. Prose loves the classics. So do I. Those writers were giants in their day. But it would be career suicide to try to write like them today, especially the overfed prose of the British writers. Today's writers have XBox, reality shows, and cellphone-texting standing by ready to steal the reader with the flick of a switch. Today's writers need to grab the reader quickly and not let go. That can't be done with 181-word sentences. This is the age of the short attention span. It is no accident that Harold Bloom has little regard for J.K. Rowling. Neither is it an accident that all the world is reading Rowling's work.
How to account for this phenomenon? Though Ms. Prose and I are nearly the same age, she has spent her life in literature while I spent mine first as an Army officer and later as an engineer. I've only been at this reading/writing game for about five years. Before you scoff, engineering and writing are more alike than they are different. Each is governed by a set of laws--grammar for writing, formulas for engineering. But beyond that there is a great deal of room for artistry, creativity, or, as we say in engineering, elegance. Were this not so, all bridges would either look alike or fall down.
Growing up in the world of words I can easily see how Ms. Prose fell in love with Words, Sentences and Paragraphs. She's become a virtuoso, rather like one of those violinists who delight in playing things that are hard to play whether or not they are nice to listen to. As for myself, I'm a Signal-to-Noise-Ratio kinda guy. In any given sentence, some words contribute to signal (meaning), while others contribute to noise. As I read Ms. Prose's windier sample passages, I observed two things: first I had to read them several times to grok their meaning--I had to grope for the subject-verb-object and was tempted to highlight them after I found them. Second, I never did settle into the rhythm of the words that she insisted was there. After five years, I can write a pretty good sentence, clever even. However, I suspect Ms. Prose and I go about it in very different ways and have very different outcomes. I think I'll pick up a copy of "Blue Angel" to see if I'm right.
Some other observations:
--Her chapters started out with decreasing granularity--words, sentences, paragraphs. I would have liked her to extend that progression to scenes and chapters as well. I suspect the sheer bulk prohibited that in this edition.
--A chapter I would have liked to have seen would have been one on openers. Every sentence has a mission--to get you to read the next sentence. Any sentence that fails in that mission leaves a long string of unrequited sentences. Hence, the nearer the failure occurs to the beginning of the book, the greater the damage. She did comment on a few people's openers, but I believe separate billing for openers would have been justified.
--I got a chuckle out of her closing section, Books to Be Read Immediately. She just got done convincing me to read more slowly, one word at a time. BTW--engineers do that by nature. Now she presents me with a single-spaced list of books that goes on for five pages. I had been wondering what I was going to do for the next twenty years--now I know.
--She commented that the joy of writing for her and many other writers comes from crafting sentences. I will admit that is one of the more fun parts of writing, but that is not why I write. I write to tell stories. Sentences--no matter how finely crafted--are only a means to that end. Beyond telling stories, I have the hidden agenda of changing people's attitudes--something you can only do with good fiction. I like to say that if you intend to inform the already convinced, write non-fiction. But if you would change people's attitudes, you must write fiction. Examples: Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin" (led to the Civil War), or Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" (led to the civil rights movement). You can write essay after essay on why it's wrong to be a racist but you will not change one racist mind. They do not respond to facts and logic. But let them live in a racist world, let them walk a mile in racist shoes, as you can only do in fiction--ah, now you may find a chink in their armor. Though racism is not my target, changing people's attitudes is why I write.
--Ejner Fulsang, author of "A Knavish Piece of Work", Aarhus Publishing, 2006
She not only encourages and explains the reading of the classics, Prose also offers a diet rich in vignettes from an egalitarian menu of authors. She is like a chef who tells you to eat great food, teaches you how to cook five-star meals, and then takes you to a five-star restaurant to become a connoisseur.
As the subtitle suggests, two primary audiences will enjoy "Reading Like a Writer." Anyone who loves books, will glean insights into great books and how to enjoy them. Anyone who wants to write books, will learn how to write better--more creatively, powerfully, and yet still personally.
Reviewer: Bob Kellemen, Ph.D., is the author of "Soul Physicians," "Spiritual Friends," and "Beyond the Suffering: Embracing the Legacy of African American Soul Care and Spiritual Direction."
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