I’m so glad I listened to this book in the car instead of reading it in print because I can’t imagine the havoc it would have wreaked on my TBR list if I could have made notes as I read! In this book, author Francine Prose discusses the finer points of fiction writing, starting with words, continuing to sentences and paragraphs and proceeding through dialogue, details, gesture, character and more. Throughout the book, she shares passages from such great writers as O’Connor, Austen, Tolstoy, Kafka, Chekhov, Woolf, and Roth. She explains what makes these passages work and what aspiring writers could learn from the masters.
Although this book does contain some guidance for writers, it’s not really a “how-to” book. I have no aspirations to write fiction, but I do want to read more attentively, and this book offered some examples and guidance for doing just that. It did precisely what I was hoping for.
One of the things Prose advocates is close reading, paying attention to each word, always with the knowledge that the writer chose these words with care. I was somewhat skeptical about some of her ideas here, mostly because she doesn’t mention the role of the editor, and in my own editing work, I end up choosing a lot of the words. This naturally makes me wonder how careful writers are about their word choice. What I forgot, however, is that my particular niche of the editing world involves working not with writers interested in crafting exquisite language but with authors who have important ideas to communicate. Don’t get me wrong, some of the authors I’ve worked with are excellent wordsmiths, but they are not all writers. My job is to ensure that their ideas get communicated.
Prose, however, is talking about writers as artists, which is another thing altogether. So I ended up on Prose’s wavelength to some extent—but with the caveat that even literary writers vary in the attention they pay to individual words, sentences, paragraphs, and so on. I’m still not convinced every author is as consistently deliberate as Prose claims. Nor are the deliberate ones always successful in their choices.
Listening to this book did challenge me to pay more attention as I’m reading for pleasure, especially when I can tell that an author is playing with language and motif and other elements that might pass me by if I were to focus entirely on character, plot, and theme. Inspired partly by this book, but also by Emily’s comment on Eva’s post about noting key passages in books, I read Godric by Frederick Buechner with a pen in my hand this week. This put me in a mind-set in which I paid attention to words and recurring motifs in a way I usually don’t. With a certain kind of book, I can see this being a rewarding way to read. I’m not sure it’s suitable for every book, but I can see the value, especially on a reread.
I also generally agreed with Prose’s attitude toward the rules of good writing. She believes writers should understand the basic rules, not just in grammar but also in plotting, character, and so on, but she recognizes that a good writer can break any or all of these rules. She talks extensively, for example, about the value of the paragraph break for resting the eyes. In many cases, what she has to say here is absolutely true, and it’s certainly something writers should keep in mind. However, as I was listening I kept thinking, “but … but … Jose Saramago! The man whose hard return key appeared to be broken!” And what do you know? She then mentions Saramago as someone who manages to break the rule and make it work. I may disagree with Prose about the relative importance of certain guidelines (cough*StrunkandWhite*cough), but I totally support the way she blends discipline and flexibility.
And oh my goodness, the excerpts. Prose shares some absolutely stunning writing. (A list of works referenced are mentioned on the book’s Wikipedia page.) If I’d not been driving, and if I had paper and pen at hand, I’m pretty sure I would have ended up putting fully half on them on my virtual TBR list. Looking down the list now, the only title not already on my list that I’m sure I would have added is The Marquise of O by Heinrich Von Kleist. (It’s about a woman who gets pregnant and puts an ad in the paper asking the father to come forward so she can marry him. Seriously, people! How could I not want to read this!?) And maybe Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by Z. Z. Packer.
But in spite of my relief my TBR list hasn’t grown quite exponentially as a result of reading this book, I wish I had a hard copy, because there are a lot of ideas here I’d like to revisit and think over more carefully, and there are a lot of excerpted passages I’d like to reread more closely. Maybe I’ll just end up reading them in the works themselves!
Other Bloggers’ Thoughts
A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook: “This is what Francine Prose tries to convey: read the story but read also beyond the plot.”
So Many Books: “I expected something more than I got. I felt like it was a book like any other book about how to read closely and carefully…”
Of Books and Bicycles: “… although my enjoyment of the book increased as I went on, I still have reservations about its quality.”
Tales from the Reading Room: “… in this book the quotes are really some of the best bits. In many ways this is Prose’s intention – she wants us to linger over the delicious rightness of these author’s creative choices.”