The most important things, I told them, were observation and consciousness. Keep your eyes open, see clearly, think about what you see, ask yourself what it means.
I read this book on the recommendation of a good writing friend who suggested it as a way to improve my writing (yes, I write but I have more rejections than acceptances at this point). Because of my penchant for reading books on writing craft, I picked this one up and decided to read it this month.
I am not surprised by the literary bent of the book. After all, when a novice writer decides they want to learn to write well, they are not directed towards popular novels, whose timelessness has not been tested yet, but to the classics of literature, and Western Literature at that. Prose is not the first to propose that creative writing cannot be taught but she does suggest that we can become better writers by reading the very best we can find and imitating/incorporating the techniques of great writers into our own writing.
What follows is not necessarily a book on craft but a model for close reading. Prose obviously uses the texts she loves the most, which universally fall into the realm of literary fiction, to show excellence in craft. She loves the well-wrought sentence, the precise use of language, and mastery of style and technique. This is invaluable advice – all writers should pay close attention the the vehicle of their expression. The writer who ignores conventions in craft risks creating a work that will not stand the test of time. This is often underestimated in today’s writing climate, which provides greater opportunities and platforms for getting written works to a reading public, many of those rushed to publication before they are ready.
I have only one bone to pick with a book that should otherwise be considered an essential read for any aspiring writer. While it is absolutely essential, as a serious writer, to be exposed to the classics, I felt some frustration with the narrow selections. Prose hews very closely to the Western Cannon, with all its politics of exclusion intact. I don’t fault anyone for choosing Checkov, Dostoyevsky, Woolfe, Kleist, and so on as examples of literary excellence. They are excellent. But it is clear from the literary perambulations of this book that the writer doesn’t often pick up diverse or contemporary novels. This is not to take away from the strength of Reading Like a Writer and the model of writing apprenticeship that the book proposes. It’s one I use with my students to teach writing. But I find it difficult to believe that there is not one example of exemplary writing from a non-Western author to be found. Does it not exist? The omissions are as telling as the works included.
In addition, all mention of plot is left out. The book addresses writing at the level of words, sentences and paragraphs, all put to the service of characterization, tone and description but omits the one that holds all the others together. I don’t know that this is necessarily a fault with the book, given its purpose. However, it reminds me of something that I’ve struggled with over the last few years as I try to find my own authorial voice and the genre in which I should write. I tend to write in a style consistent with the many pieces of literary fiction I’ve consumed over my life. But I also read a great deal of genre fiction. I am as passionate about Ursula Le Guin as I am about Ernest Hemingway, as enchanted by Diane Gabaldon as I am by Junot Díaz. Is plot the line drawn in the sand, where on the one side, supremacy is bestowed to craft and character, while plot lives on the other side and must necessarily be inferior because tension is instead created through story events? Can a well-crafted novel by a diverse writer also have an amazing plot? How does a writer make this happen? Perhaps it is simply beyond the scope of this book but it does point to a larger question that is difficult to resolve.
As a book on the value and pleasure of close reading, there is nothing like it. But it suffers, as so many books on craft do, from a narrow definition of literary excellence. This does writers, especially writers of color and of genre fiction, something of a disservice, for they never find their own type of writing validated as exemplars. You are also forced to ignore beloved books that you loved because they are too plot-heavy to enjoy without guilt. How many artists are lost to the narrowing of the world’s literary lense because they love the wrong types of books or, worse yet, they perceive themselves as the wrong type of writer with the wrong type preoccupations?
Overall, I must insist that the most important exercise a writer can do is to track down the writers they love and find out why they love them. To do this, they have to employ the very type of close reading modeled by Prose. This is the greatest takeaway from this seminal work of reading. Copy passages you love, read closely the sections that move you with their well-wrought beauty or make your heart race to examine how the effect is accomplished. Use Shakespeare. Use Suzanne Collins. Depending on what you want to accomplish, choose what models that work for you.
Once you find the words that move you, ruthlessly take them apart. Rearrange them. Figure out how it’s done. Whatever your exemplary literature turns out to be.
Bonus: The chapter on Chekov is actually quite brilliant. I hope all of us can love a writer in this way.
“To be truthful, some writers stop you dead in your tracks by making you see your own work in the most unflattering light. Each of us will meet a different harbinger of personal failure, some innocent genius chosen by us for reasons having to do with what we see as our own inadequacies.
The only remedy to this I have found is to read a writer whose work is entirely different from another, though not necessarily more like your own—a difference that will remind you of how many rooms there are in the house of art.”
“There are many occasions in literature in which telling is far more effective than showing.”
“Every page was once a blank page, just as every word that appears on it now was not always there, but instead reflects the final result of countless large and small deliberations.”
“You will do yourself a disservice if you confine your reading to the rising star whose six-figure, two-book contract might seem to indicate where your own work should be heading. I’m not saying you shouldn’t read such writers, some of whom are excellent and deserving of celebrity. I’m only pointing out that they represent the dot at the end of the long, glorious, complex sentence in which literature has been written.”
“Words are the raw material out of which literature is crafted.”
“If God is in the details, we all must on some deep level believe that the truth is in there, too. Or maybe it is that God is truth: Details are what persuade us that someone is telling the truth – a fact that every good liar knows instinctively and too well.”