Reading Like a Writer

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Distinguished novelist and critic Francine Prose inspires readers and writers alike with this inside look at how the professionals read...and write. Long before there were creative writing workshops and degrees, how did aspiring writers learn to write? By reading the work of their predecessors and contemporaries, says Francine Prose. In READING LIKE A WRITER, Prose invites you to sit by her side and take a guided tour of the tools and the tricks of the masters. She reads the work of the very best writersDostoyevsky, Flaubert, Kafka, Austen, Dickens, Woolf, Chekhovand discovers why these writers endure. She takes pleasure in the long and magnificent sentences of Philip Roth and the breathtaking paragraphs of Isaac Babel; she is deeply moved by the brilliant characterization in George Eliot's MIDDLEMARCH. She looks to John Le Carre for a lesson in how to advance plot through dialogue, to Flannery O'Connor for the cunning use of the telling detail, and to James Joyce and Katherine Mansfield who offer clever examples of how to employ gesture to create character. She cautions readers to slow down and pay attention to words, the raw material out of which literature is crafted. Written with passion, humor, and wisdom, READING LIKE A WRITER will inspire readers to return to literature with a fresh eye and an eager heart.

Table of Contents

ONE: Close Reading 1(12)
TWO: Words 13(22)
THREE: Sentences 35(28)
FOUR: Paragraphs 63(22)
FIVE: Narration 85(24)
SIX: Character 109(34)
SEVEN: Dialogue 143(50)
EIGHT: Details 193(16)
NINE: Gesture 209(24)
TEN: Learning from Chekhov 233(16)
ELEVEN: Reading for Courage 249(20)
Books to Be Read Immediately 269(6)
Acknowledgments 275


Reading Like a Writer
A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them

Books to Be Read Immediately

Akutagawa, Ryunosuke. M. Kuwata and Tashaki Kojima (translators),Rashomon and Other Stories

Alcott, Louisa May, Little Women

Anonymous. Dorothy L. Sayers (translator), The Song of Roland

Austen, Jane, Pride and Prejudice

Austen, Jane, Sense and Sensibility

Babel, Isaac. Walter Morrison (translator), The Collected Stories

Baldwin, James, Vintage Baldwin

Balzac, Honere de. Kathleen Raine (translator), Cousin Bette

Barthelme, Donald, Sixty Stories

Brodkey, Harold, Stories in an Almost Classical Mode

Baxter, Charles, Believers: A Novella and Stories

Beckett, Samuel, The Complete Short Prose, 1929-1989

Bowen, Elizabeth, The House in Paris

Bowles, Jane, Two Serious Ladies

Bowles, Paul, Paul Bowles: Collected Stories and Later Writings

Bronte, Emily, Wuthering Heights

Calvino, Italo, Cosmicomics

Carver, Raymond, Where I’m Calling From: Selected Stories

Carver, Raymond, Cathedral

Cervantes, Miguel De. Tobias Smollett (translator), Don QuixoteChandler, Raymond, The Big Sleep

Cheever, John, The Stories of John Cheever

Chekhov, Anton.Constance Garnett (translator), A Life in Letters

Chekhov, Anton. Constance Garnett (translator), Tales Of Anton Chekhov: Volumes 1-13

Diaz, Junot,Drown

Dickens, Charles, Bleak House

Dickens, Charles, Dombey and Son

Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. Constance Garnett (translator), Crime and Punishment

Dybek, Stuart, I Sailed With Magellan

Eisenberg, Deborah, The Stories (So Far) of Deborah Eisenberg

Eliot, Georg, Middlemarch

Elkin, Stanley, Searches and Seizures

Fitzgerald, F. Scott, The Great Gatsby

Fitzgerald, F. Scott, Tender is the Night

Flaubert, Gustave.Geoffrey Wall (translator), Madame Bovary

Flaubert, Gustave. Robert Baldick (translator), A Sentimental Education

Fox, Paula. Jonathan Franzen (introduction), Desperate Characters

Franzen, Jonathan, The Corrections

Gallant, Mavis, Paris Stories

Gaddis, William, The Recognitions

Gates, David, The Wonders of the Invisible World: Stories

Gibbon, Edward, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Gogol, Nikolai. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (translators), Dead Souls: A Novel

Green, Henry, Doting

Green, Henry, Loving

Hartley, L.P., The Go-Between

Hemingway, Ernest, A Moveable Feast

Hemingway, Ernest, The Sun Also Rises

Herbert, Zbigniew, Czeslaw Milosz and Peter Dale Scott (translators), Selected Poems

James, Henry, The Portrait of a Lady

James, Henry, The Turn of the Screw

Jarrell, Randall, Pictures From an Institution

Johnson, Denis, Angels

Johnson, Denis, Jesus’s Son

Johnson, Diane, Le Divorce

Johnson, Diane, Persian Nights

Johnson, Samuel, The Life of Savage

Joyce, James, Dubliners

Kafka, Franz. Malcolm Pasley (translator), The Judgment and In the Penal Colony

Kafka, Franz. Malcolm Pasley (translator), Metamorphosis and Other Stories

Kafka, Franz. Willa and Edmund Muir (translator), The Trial

Le Carre, John, A Perfect Spy (New York: Bantam, 1986).

Mandelstam, Nadezdha, Hope Against Hope: A Memoir

Mansfield, Katherine, Collected Stories of Katherine Mansfield

Marquez, Gabriel Garcia. Gregory Rabassa (translator), One Hundred Years of Solitude

Marquez, Gabriel Garcia. Gregory Rabassa (translator), The Autumn of the Patriarch

McInerney, Jay, Bright Lights, Big City

Melville, Herman, Bartleby and Benito Cereno

Melville, Herman, Moby Dick

Milton, John, Paradise Lost

Munro, Alice, Selected Stories

Nabokov, Vladimir, Lectures on Russian Literature

Nabokov, Vladimir, Lolita

O’Brien, Tim, The Things They Carried: A Work of Fiction

O’Connor, Flannery, A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories

O’Connor, Flannery. Collected Stories

O’Connor, Flannery, Wise Blood

Packer, ZZ, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere

Paustovsky, Konstantin. Joseph Barnes (translator), Years of Hope: The Story of A Life.

Price, Richard, Freedomland

Proust, Marcel.D.J. Enright (translator), Swann’s Way

Pynchon, Thomas, Gravity’s Rainbow

Richardson, Samuel, Pamela: Or Virtue Rewarded

Rossellini, Isabella, Some of Me

Roth, Philip, American Pastoral

Roth, Philip, Philip Roth: Novels and Stories 1959-1962

Rulfo, Juan, Margaret Sayers Peden (translator), Pedro Paramo

Salinger, J.D.Franny and Zooey

Shakespeare, William, King Lear

Shteyngart, Gary. The Russian Debutante’s Handbook

Sophocles. Sir George Young (translator), Oedipus Rex

Spencer, Scott, A Ship Made of Paper

St. Aubyn, Edward, Mother’s Milk

St. Aubyn, Edward, Some Hope: A Trilogy

Stead, Christina, The Man Who Loved Children

Steegmuller, Francis, Flaubert and Madame Bovary: A Double Portrait

Stein, Gertrude, The Autobiography of Alice B. Tolkas

Stendhal. Roger Gard (translator), The Red and the Black

Stout, Rex, Plot it Yourself

Strunk, William and White, E.B.. Maria Kalman (Illustrator), The Elements of Style, Illustrated

Taylor, Peter, A Summons to Memphis

Tolstaya, Tatyana, Sleepwalker in a Fog

Tolstoy, Leo. Constance Garnett (translator), Anna Karenina

Tolstoy, Leo. Aylmer Maude (translator), The Death of Ivan Ilych and Other Stories

Tolstoy, Leo, David McDuff (translator), The Kreutzer Sonata and Other Stories

Tolstoy, Leo. Rosemary Edmonds (translator), Resurrection (New York: Penguin, 1966).

Tolstoy, Leo. Constance Garnett (trans). War and Peace (New York: Random House, 1994).

Trevor, William, The Children of Dynmouth

Trevor, William, The Collected Stories

Trevor, William, Fools of Fortune

Turgenev, Ivan Sergeevich. Isaiah Berlin (translator), First Love

Twain, Mark, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Von Kleist, Heinrich. Martin Greenberg (translator) and Thomas Mann (preface), The Marquise of O— and Other Stories

West, Rebecca, The Birds Fall Down

West, Rebecca, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia

Williams, Joy, Escapes

Woods, James, Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief

Woolf, Virginia, On Being Ill

Yates, Richard, Revolutionary Road

Chapter One

Close Reading

Can creative writing be taught?

It's a reasonable question, but no matter how often I've been asked, I never know quite what to say. Because if what people mean is: Can the love of language be taught? Can a gift for storytelling be taught? then the answer is no. Which may be why the question is so often asked in a skeptical tone implying that, unlike the multiplication tables or the principles of auto mechanics, creativity can't be transmitted from teacher to student. Imagine Milton enrolling in a graduate program for help with Paradise Lost, or Kafka enduring the seminar in which his classmates inform him that, frankly, they just don't believe the part about the guy waking up one morning to find he's a giant bug.

What confuses me is not the sensibleness of the question but the fact that it's being asked of a writer who has taught writing, on and off, for almost twenty years. What would it say about me, my students, and the hours we'd spent in the classroom if I said that any attempt to teach the writing of fiction was a complete waste of time? Probably, I should just go ahead and admit that I've been committing criminal fraud.

Instead I answer by recalling my own most valuable experience, not as a teacher but as a student in one of the few fiction workshops I took. This was in the 1970s, during my brief career as a graduate student in medieval English literature, when I was allowed the indulgence of taking one fiction class. Its generous teacher showed me, among other things, how to line edit my work. For any writer, the ability to look at a sentence and see what's superfluous, what can be altered, revised, expanded, or especially cut is essential. It's satisfying to see that sentence shrink, snap into place, and ultimately emerge in a more polished form: clear, economical, sharp.

Meanwhile, my classmates were providing me with my first real audience. In that prehistory, before mass photocopying enabled students to distribute manuscripts in advance, we read our work aloud. That year, I was beginning what would become my first novel. And what made an important difference to me was the attention I felt in the room as the others listened. I was encouraged by their eagerness to hear more.

That's the experience I describe, the answer I give people who ask about teaching creative writing: A workshop can be useful. A good teacher can show you how to edit your work. The right class can form the basis of a community that will help and sustain you.

But that class, as helpful as it was, was not where I learned to write.

Like most, maybe all, writers, I learned to write by writing and, by example, from books.

Long before the idea of a writer's conference was a glimmer in anyone's eye, writers learned by reading the work of their predecessors. They studied meter with Ovid, plot construction with Homer, comedy with Aristophanes; they honed their prose style by absorbing the lucid sentences of Montaigne and Samuel Johnson. And who could have asked for better teachers: generous, uncritical, blessed with wisdom and genius, as endlessly forgiving as only the dead can be?

Though writers have learned from the masters in a formal, methodical way—Harry Crews has described taking apart a Graham Greene novel to see how many chapters it contained, how much time it covered, how Greene handled pacing, tone, and point of view—the truth is this sort of education more often involves a kind of osmosis. After I've written an essay in which I've quoted at length from great writers, so that I've had to copy out long passages of their work, I've noticed that my own work becomes, however briefly, just a little more fluent.

In the ongoing process of becoming a writer, I read and reread the authors I most loved. I read for pleasure, first, but also more analytically, conscious of style, of diction, of how sentences were formed and information was being conveyed, how the writer was structuring a plot, creating characters, employing detail and dialogue. And as I wrote I discovered that writing, like reading, was done one word at a time, one punctuation mark at a time. It required what a friend calls "putting every word on trial for its life": changing an adjective, cutting a phrase, removing a comma, and putting the comma back in.

I read closely, word by word, sentence by sentence, pondering each deceptively minor decision that the writer had made. And though it's impossible to recall every source of inspiration and instruction, I can remember the novels and stories that seemed to me revelations: wells of beauty and pleasure that were also textbooks, private lessons in the art of fiction.

This book is intended partly as a response to that unavoidable question about how writers learn to do something that cannot be taught. What writers know is that, ultimately, we learn to write by practice, hard work, by repeated trial and error, success and failure, and from the books we admire. And so the book that follows represents an effort to recall my own education as a novelist and to help the passionate reader and would-be writer understand how a writer reads.

When I was a high school junior, our English teacher assigned us to write a term paper on the theme of blindness in Oedipus Rex and King Lear. We were supposed to go through the two tragedies and circle every reference to eyes, light, darkness, and vision, then draw some conclusion on which we would base our final essay.

It all seemed so dull, so mechanical. We felt we were way beyond it. Without this tedious, time-consuming exercise, all of us knew that blindness played a starring role in both dramas.

Still, we liked our English teacher, we wanted to please him. And searching for every . . .

Reading Like a Writer
A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them
. Copyright © by Francine Prose. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Excerpted from Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them by Francine Prose
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