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

( 28 )


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 writers&#8212Dostoyevsky, Flaubert, Kafka, Austen, Dickens, Woolf, Chekhov&#8212and discovers why their work has endured. ...

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

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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 writers&#8212Dostoyevsky, Flaubert, Kafka, Austen, Dickens, Woolf, Chekhov&#8212and discovers why their work has endured. 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 Carré 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 for 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.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Centuries before college creative writing programs, would-be authors learned their craft by reading. Francine Prose, a talented wordsmith herself, utilizes this time-honored approach in this inviting, practical guide. Reading Like a Writer performs a double service by making us both better writers and more attentive readers. Her refreshingly egalitarian choice of exemplars demonstrates that writing skills are not found only in elite literary circles. One of the best recent writing guides we have seen.
Emily Barton
I don’t know if any book about writing can tell us where novels come from — or how they take shape in a writer’s mind. Nevertheless, Reading Like a Writer should be greatly appreciated in and out of the classroom. Like the great works of fiction, it’s a wise and voluble companion.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
The trick to writing, Prose writes, is reading-carefully, deliberately and slowly. While this might seem like a no-brainer, Prose (Blue Angel; A Changed Man) masterfully meditates on how quality reading informs great writing, which will warm the cold, jaded hearts of even the most frustrated, unappreciated and unpublished writers. Chapters treat the nuts and bolts of writing (words, sentences, paragraphs) as well as issues of craft (narration, character, dialogue), all of which Prose discusses using story or novel excerpts. This is where the book truly shines; Prose is remarkably egalitarian in choosing exemplars of fiction: David Gates, Denis Johnson, John le Carr and ZZ Packer, for instance, are considered as seriously as Chekhov, Melville, Flaubert or Babel. Prose insists that "literature not only breaks the rules, but makes us realize that there are none," and urges writers to re-read the classics (Chekhov, especially) and view "reading as something that might move or delight you." Prose's guide to reading and writing belongs on every writer's bookshelf alongside E.M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel. (Aug.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Publishers Weekly

Savard has a pleasant voice, a good vocal range and the important ability to emphasize for clarity and drama. She's especially good at the long and very varied quotes Prose has selected to illustrate the elements of "close reading," i.e., paying careful attention to words, sentences, paragraphs, narration, character, dialogue, details and gesture (her chapter headings). Prose has taught writing classes for more than 20 years and published 14 books. To be a good writer-or a good reader-she argues, you must develop the ability to focus on language and explore line by line how the best writers use each element of language to create unique and powerful people and stories. She pulls out words and phrases from various authors to show us, for example, precisely how Flannery O'Connor creates "the literary equivalent of a fireworks display" while Alice Munro "writes with the simplicity and beauty of a Shaker box." This is a an excellent listen that belongs in any reader's or writer's library next to Strunk and White's The Elements of Style. Simultaneous release with the Harper Perennial paperback (Reviews, Apr. 24, 2006). (May)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal
Prose, known for her novels (e.g., Blue Angel), as well as her nonfiction (e.g., Caravaggio: Painter of Miracles), presents a short volume that serves as literary criticism, as a writing guide, and as an ode to the value of careful reading. Prose devotes a chapter each to eight elements of writing: words, sentences, paragraphs, narration, character, dialog, details, and gesture. These chapters are framed by an opening piece that urges close reading as most productive for writers; a chapter devoted to Chekhov, particularly his short stories, as translated by Constance Garnett; and a closing chapter, "Reading for Courage." Throughout, Prose focuses on what makes great fiction, mixing personal narrative with plentiful quotations from her favored writers, including both the big names generally encountered in such books (Joyce, Woolf, Mansfield, Flannery O'Connor, Melville, Austen, Paul Bowles, and Raymond Carver) and writers like Tatyana Tolstaya, Paula Fox, and Rex Stout. As the title suggests, this book is likely to find its audience with readers who are also writers or who long to be. Those who simply "love books" but do not have interest in the excruciating process behind their creation will not find the same value here. As a result, this book may have a narrow audience but one that will find much to enjoy. Prose also includes a suggested reading list. Recommended for academic and large public libraries. Stacey Brownlie, Lititz P.L., PA Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-Life is precious, and much of that preciousness lies in the details: the sights, the sounds, the scents we too often ignore in our busy lives. Prose makes a superb application of that concept for readers of fiction. To know how the great writers create their magic, one needs to engage in a close reading of the masters, for that is precisely what successful writers have done for thousands of years. College programs in creative writing and summer workshops serve a purpose, but they can never replace a careful reading of the likes of Austen, Dostoyevsky, Flaubert, Kafka, Salinger, Tolstoy, and Woolf. In this excellent guide, Prose explains exactly what she means by "close reading," drawing attention to the brick and mortar of outstanding narratives: words, sentences, paragraphs, character, dialogue, details, and more. In the process, she does no less than escort readers to a heightened level of appreciation of great literature. Many will want to go to the shelves to read again, or for the first time, the books she discusses. And to aid them, she thoughtfully adds a list at the end: "Books to Be Read Immediately."-Robert Saunderson, Berkeley Public Library, CA Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Los Angeles Times
“a jewel of a companion…engrossing...and...daringly insightful.”
Kansas City Star
“Sensible, valuable and highly readable, Reading Like a Writer deserves perusal — both in and out of the classroom.”
Time Out New York
“Celebrates the pleasures of close reading and explores the power of well-wrought language…refreshing”
Washington Post Book World
New York Times Book Review
“Prose’s little guide will motivate ‘people who love books’…Like the great works of fiction, it’s a wise and voluble companion.”
San Francisco Chronicle
“The passages are…subtle and brilliant in their capture of human complexity…Prose is…a skilled…analyst of what makes them so.”
National Public Radio
“An absolutely necessary addition to the personal library of anyone who is a writer or dreams of writing.”
More magazine
“Prose knows when to be funny, how to wield examples, and when to stop.”
Capital Times
“Readable and illuminating…few…advice volumes offer as much insight into writing as you will find in Francine Prose’s latest book”
Washington Times
“Reading Like A Writer is different from the rest of the pack…[Prose’s] wise book serves as an ispirational reminder.”
Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel
“Makes a case for the rewards of reading.”
"Prose knows when to be funny, how to wield examples, and when to stop."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060777043
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 8/22/2006
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.25 (h) x 0.97 (d)

Meet the Author

Francine Prose

Francine Prose is the author of twenty works of fiction. Her novel A Changed Man won the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and Blue Angel was a finalist for the National Book Award. Her most recent works of nonfiction include the highly acclaimed Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife, and the New York Times bestseller Reading Like a Writer. The recipient of numerous grants and honors, including a Guggenheim and a Fulbright, a Director's Fellow at the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, Prose is a former president of PEN American Center, and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She lives in New York City.

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    1. Hometown:
      New York, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      April 1, 1947
    2. Place of Birth:
      Brooklyn, New York
    1. Education:
      B.A., Radcliffe College, 1968

Read an Excerpt

Reading Like a Writer

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

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2006 Francine Prose
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0060777044

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 beencommitting 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 . . .


Excerpted from Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose Copyright © 2006 by Francine Prose. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 28 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 28 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 20, 2007

    A reviewer

    Reading Like a Writer threatens to be the next On Writing Well or Bird by Bird, Theses are types of entry level books, which writing instructors require for an undergrad writing course. But this one falls short. Her canon and examples are meant to make professors nod or change, obviously avoiding and attempting to change the literature required in high school and in undergrad English programs. The list of books is a bit dated and some can really be out of touch for today's reader. As she continues on to the second half of the book her good-humored jabs and pleasant levity came less and less frequently and the prose analysis became less dynamic, then less objective, then more geared toward easily debatable opinion. This book excels over others such as Self-Editing for Fiction Writers and Bird by Bird, in that you have the opinions of fiction from an extremely important American writer in our time. On the topic of technique, Prose breaks from the standard advice given to writers that they should 'show' action and personality instead of 'tell' through narration Prose says some of the greatest writing is telling (from a narrator's insight). She points to the opening page of Pride and Predjudice as an example of telling being wonderfully executed I point to Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude as a confirming example among my recent reads. And in the mass market, The DaVinci Code (though it would be poo-pooed by the literati) makes good use of telling, to really keep the plot moving and fast paced. I just think the problem with telling occurs when a narrator really has nothing interesting or engaging to add, or does not stay within 'the character' of the narrator, causing the telling to be simply fillerâ¿¿a construction of a lazy writer. The author must truly learn how to show before telling and that is why introductory writing material must stress this: there is just so much lazily constructed text that I think showing is a worthy goal for the beginner. The second gem of advice is the focus Prose places on crafting the perfect sentence. Learning the importance of agonizing over every word was beneficial to me and that alone made it worth purchasing this book. This is so tough to do. I was inspired and driven to increase the effort I had put into several sections for my novel and Prose's advice helped push me to the next level, so thank you Francine for that! What raised the book to a 3.75 out of 5, is the focus that Prose puts on reading quality literature while writing in order to emulate it, rather than avoiding brilliant writing so that you won't be discouraged when comparing. I add that even if you end up being pummeled to death by a writing group or a workshop through their excessively critical or conversely simple air-headed praise (where you're not even sure if they read it). I think there is an argument though that really makes for showing, in that in beginning to write you really need to know how to do both, and you for sure could see the examples (from your fiction class) where telling is an absolute cheap and easy way out of creating true tension or conflict in your work but now I'm seeing the benefits of both. I've gone through periods where I've hated reading pluperfect literature while writing because it is so discouraging, and periods where some great stuff has been soured in my eyes by one misinformed comment from a well-meaning classmate. I love reading the greats now while I'm writing, because I've given myself over to imitation. Joyceian, Bradburian and Mertonian. Why not? Go for it. If you can emulate without stealing, then you're writing really tight stuff and you're mimicking the proven techniques of the greatest writers. That's every writer's goal right? Write.

    7 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 26, 2013

    A montage of qoutes, poems, and the like.

    As long as life holds me with its deathlike grip, <br> Love is the bond that keeps me to the world l despise. <br> And whilst l bribe death with my generous tip, <br> lt wouldn't hold at bay my immenent demise. <p> <br> Wallow, wade, and smell the jade. <br> Sink, fall, then hear my calls. <p> Waste love, and make time, <br> To be near and never lie. <br> Lust life while you burn the light, <br> And hear the few when they scream their fright. <p> I'll hold you near when all the tears dry, <br> Even when the stars fall and cry. <br> I will keep a hold, always so bold, <br> And l will run to keep you from fear as it is told. <p> Together, a promise is bound, to grow old in company of time, <br> Forsaking nothing as the skies age, and the days fade, <br> For we shall live, and no span of hate shall keep our minds from being made. <p> <br> The time will come when life as you knew it in the past will be questioned by your reasoning, and you will wonder the worth of your life. You will know, then, that memories are what make you who you are-- the proof of the past in memories have made you who you are. But, though that is true, the days that count most are in the present, because of the fact that memories are made as we live, and not as we waste time remembering. <p> Live well, because no matter who you are, or how well your memories define you as, your health should have your attention most. You cannot build more memories, afterall, if you sit on regret, crippled from your mistakes. Think and do well, because a joyful heart and a developed mind are the two most influential keys to govorning today's world with successful outcome. This is the way for memories to thrive. <p> <br> Life is indeed a path, uneven and treacherously slippery. You must know, however, that there is no avoiding the slipping. The trick that many people end up learning is how to slip in the right direction, no matter the speed or the chances of landing off a cliff. Courage to move at all is essential, for you couldn't move anywhere without conviction to succeed. <p> <br> Kindness is returned with hatred when extended towards a fool, but kindness in return for kindess is a process made between two good men. <p> <br> Heed the words of many with their integrity, for the mind of one fool would do nothing more than corrupt the council of the unsure. <p> ~Meauthurist.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 30, 2007

    Sharing and Reciprocating

    Francine Prose is fine craftsman and an inspiriting writer of fiction as well as book on history and art. In this current excellent book she shares her vast experience in teaching and in communicating with students, friends, critics, writers both alive and dead, and now with us, the fortunate audience. Prose is really talking about how both she and other writers practive their craft and in doing so she shares motivational information on how to better enjoy reading: her premise is that if we understand how great works are created we will better appreciated the art of reading. Beginning with a very informative essay on the concept of reading slowly, for the words and word structures, not unlike the old pastime of reading aloud to a group, Prose seduces us into her world of complete pleasure with the written word. She early on advises us as to the writers she most cherishes - and they are legion - and then develops a manner of looking at the page over several categories of thinking. Her chapters (after 'Close Reading') are as follows: Words, Sentences, Paragraphs, Narration, Character, Dialogue, Details, and Gestures. In each fascinating chapter she shows us how different authors have successfully addressed each issue of storytelling - and the examples are fascinatingly learned. Prose ends her book with words to encourage us to go back to the classics to better serve our reading of current literature. It all works well - we leave her book hungry to read more! Grady Harp

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 24, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    The book is called READING LIKE A WRITER

    If you are NOT a writer, don't buy this book. It has writer written all over it. Use some sense. Some of the people here on B&N are a few cards short of a deck. :-D

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  • Posted August 2, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Definitely a technical book.

    I really don't know why I bought this. I tend to dislike technical guides to things, and it took me months of picking up and putting down to get through this book. I very much enjoyed her literary examples and she has given me a few suggestions of what I might read next, but otherwise it was kind of dull. Once you get past the initial chapters dissecting sentences and paragraphs, things pick up a bit, but not so much that I will keep this one on my bookshelf for quick reference. I suppose it you are an aspiring writer (which I am not) it may interest you a bit more. The subtitle of the book is "A Guide For Poeple Who Love Books and Who Want To Write Them." I, being a person who loves books, thought I fell into this category. Instead of being filled with appreciation for books, I felt like some of the joy and delight of writing was sucked out of me while reading this book, turning it into a chore.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 12, 2010

    One of the most helpful writing supplements I've found!

    "Reading Like a Writer" is a great tool for writers in almost any stage. It uses examples from relevant literature, past and present, and demonstrates techniques that the authors have used to make their writing work and flow for the reader. It teaches us how to look for these things in literature, deliberate decisions and choices that authors have made in their writing and why they work. Most of all, the teaching is easy to apply to one's own writing. It is practical and extremely helpful. I used "Reading Like a Writer" as a suggested text for a recent fiction course that I took but I think that one could use it as their own course and definitely learn a lot from it on one's own. I'm sure I will refer back to it often as time goes on.

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  • Posted March 16, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Interesting Read

    It is nice to have my teaching style validated by this author. She has some interesting insights. The book will be most helpful if you have read a lot of classic literature (like more modern-ish like Faulkner rather than Shakespeare). Thought provoking... sums up this book the best.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 23, 2008

    Very Interesting Approach

    I really found this book helpful and interesting to read. It not only helped me to better understand and appreciate the books that I read but it also helped me in my writing endeavors. I enjoyed her examples, though I thought that the author used too many to get her point across.

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