Online Edition: Spring 2007

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Reading Like a Writer

A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them

Francine Prose

HarperCollins ($23.95)

by Eva Ulett

In the opening line of her new book, Reading Like a Writer, Francine Prose asks an essential question: "Can creative writing be taught?" Her response is that creative writing can be learned in part from the careful reading of accomplished writers, including the old masters; "And who could have asked for better teachers: generous, uncritical, blessed with wisdom and genius, as endlessly forgiving as only the dead can be?" The first chapter, "Close Reading," describes Prose's theory that,

Reading this way requires a certain amount of stamina, concentration, and patience. But it also has its great rewards, among them the excitement of approaching, as nearly as you can hope to come, the hand and mind of the artist.

Prose goes back to basics with chapters on "Words" and "Sentences", the fundamental constructs of writing, what Stephen King referred to in On Writing as part of a writer's toolbox. It seems likely that readers, perhaps even those endeavoring to write fiction, fail to consider writing on this elemental level. Yet Prose demonstrates through well-selected examples how the art of fiction is created at this level. So what constitutes a beautiful sentence?

The answer is that beauty, in a sentence, is ultimately as difficult to quantify or describe as beauty in a painting or a human face. Perhaps a more accurate explanation might be something like Emily Dickinson's well-know definition of poetry: "If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know this is poetry."

Prose devotes chapters to the elements of writing generally discussed in how-to books on the craft, using Henry James and Nabokov in the chapter on "Narration"to illustrate how point of view informs readers about setting and character. "Character," for its part, is illustrated with examples from Heinrich von Kleist's, whose novella The Marquise of O— brought Prose's undergraduates students together in their discussion of the story's characters as though they were involved in the Marquise's "life and loves."

In the concluding chapters Prose describes the challenges of teaching creative writing and the pursuit of writing fiction, an art form with no rules that cannot be broken; and in the case of some masters of fiction, with felicitous results. Yet Reading Like a Writer is not all forensics. The book, of infinite use as a creative writing text, is also instructive to serious readers, and is itself a pleasure to read. Prose's careful construction supports her contention that "All the elements of good writing depend on the writer's skill in choosing one word instead of another."


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