Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose

#59 in my book challenge for the year was Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose. A brief reminder that these mini-reviews are part of my annual book and movie challenges, which I initiated to remind myself of their importance in my life, and to let others know parenthood doesn’t preclude books and movies.

I enjoyed Prose’s novel A Changed Man last year, and was surprised to find her non-fiction book was also a compelling page turner. I had trouble stopping at the end of chapters. Prose harks back to a time when learning literature was done with close readings that largely eschewed the biographical details of the authors. Her approach embraces the study of literature before postmodernism, which came along and shook everything up with its inclusion of Foucoult, Lacan, and the insistence that we look at everything through different “lenses”. Her approach also harks back to a time and an approach that were more about loving literature than taking it apart and tearing it down, as discussed in this article by a professor of English.

Each chapter focuses on an aspect of fiction, such as character, sentences, paragraphs, and more. For each topic, Prose offers many excerpts and analyses of famous works. The book finishes with a list of “Books to be Read Immediately”, though I did miss an index that would have tied each work on that list to where she cited it as an example in the book. I found her writing and the book both accessible and challenging. In the wake of it, I feel both discouraged (how am I ever going to write as well as the writers she named?) and encouraged (nothing for it but to practice).

Interestingly, Prose even took a book I’d recently not enjoyed, Sense and Sensibility, and pointed out a skillfully done aspect of it that made me better appreciate that book. While Prose’s book is directed to writers, it will also be appreciated by those who love literature.

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