Saturday, July 26, 2008

Book Review: Reading Like a Writer

Author: Francine Prose
HarperCollins, 2006

Reviewed by Nannette Croce

Seems today there are far more ways for would-be writers to spend money than earn it. Writing courses, conferences, magazines, and books––oh so many books––and most of it ends up not being worth the price you paid. One thing I am always particularly careful about is books on writing, because reading a writer's reminiscences or having her tell you to do it her way, is rarely helpful in the real world, and exercises with no one to critique them are pretty useless. However, Reading Like a Writer is something all writers should learn to do, and something I have been woefully bad at.

This book really worked for me, mainly because Prose focuses on other writers' work and not her own and teaches us how to pick apart what we read. She made me aware of the decisions I make as I write and how to judge whether they work. She gets into all aspects of writing. You'd expect to find a chapter on dialogue in a book of this type and character and narration, but what about paragraphs?

Prose quotes extensively––and I mean extensively––from other writers, sometimes a few pages worth, which may be one reason why she chose mostly older writers whose work is presumably in the public domain by now. That worked fine for me. Writers like Balzac and Chekhov endure for a reason, and I prefer actual examples to books that throw out references as though we've all read every piece of literature, foreign and domestic, ever written, and, of course, can clearly remember the specific changes of POV in Faulkner's Absolom, Absolom.

Unfortunately, in the final two chapters Prose falls into the old, "all rules are meant to be broken" routine that just muddies the waters she has navigated us through to that point. It also seemed a bit contrived, during a writing class she taught, that every week's lesson was followed by her reading of a Chekhov story that broke that rule. I could have done just as well to skip the final chapters except for the excerpts. Happily there are ten other chapters well worth reading and re-reading and trying out some of the techniques she points out.

Reading Like a Writer is one writing book I found to be worth the price.


Kathryn Magendie said...

I've stopped by to look around!

*waving to you*

Elaine Kelson said...

Nice review. I need to read the book myself and I'll be sure to read the first ten chapters so my inspiration won't be dampened at the end. (salute)


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