When it comes to a writer as eclectic as Francine Prose, one might have a bit of trouble locating what, exactly, is the unifying thread in her work. Well, from novels to short story collections, essays to literary criticism, children's picture books to her in-depth analysis of what makes a great book, Prose's prose seems most securely tethered together by her unflagging love of reading. That may not seem like a particularly extraordinary trait, especially for a writer, but Prose is uncommonly passionate when it comes to reading and writing, having pursued a literary career because in her own words, "I wasn't qualified to do anything else."
As precise and eloquently chosen as her own writing is, Prose is equally specific about what she looks for in the material she chooses to read. She is particularly put off by "obvious, tired clichés; lazy, ungrammatical writing; implausible plot turns." Naturally, one would be hard-pressed to find any of these literary faux pas in her work. And when she does decide to explore certain clichés, such as the illicit professor/student relationship she describes in Blue Angel, she does so with a sharp dose of ironic, postmodern wit (even borrowing the title of that novel from the famous Josef von Sternberg film that dealt with that very same subject).
As biting and clever as Prose's fiction can be, she cringes whenever one refers to her work as "satire." "Satirical," she explained to Barnes & Noble.com, "to me means one-dimensional characters or that you're dealing with social issues, whereas I just think of myself as a novelist who happens to be funny, who's writing characters that are as rounded and artfully developed as the writers of tragic novels."
While such a statement may seem like excessive protesting from a lesser writer, Prose's assessment of her own work is rather accurate. The subject matter of many of her books is ripe for satire, such as religious fanaticism (Household Saints), tabloid journalism (Bigfoot Dreams), pampered social class (Primitive People), pompous academians (Blue Angel), and fascists (A Changed Man). Yet she always approaches these subjects with great humanity and respect for her characters. "I really do love my characters," she says, "but I feel that I want to take a very hard look at them. I don't find them guilty of anything I'm not guilty of myself."
Prose may be best known as the author of popular novels like Household Saints (which was adapted into an excellent film starring Tracey Ullman, Vincent D'Onofrio, and Lili Taylor in 1993) and Blue Angel (which celebrated bestselling humorist David Sedaris often extolled during his public appearances), but her output covers a vast range of topics. She has written literary criticism for The New York Times and art criticism for The Wall Street Journal. She has authored a number of illustrated children's books based on Jewish folklore, including Dybbuk: A Story Made in Heaven and Angel's Mistake. She has published collections of short stories (Women and Children First: and Other Stories), novellas (Guided Tours of Hell), and essays (Scent of a Woman's Ink). Her The Lives of the Muses is an examination of nine women who inspired some of the most important artists and thinkers of our time, including Alice Liddell (Lewis Caroll), Yoko Ono (John Lennon), Gala Dali (Salvador Dali), and "serial muse" Lou Andreas-Salomé's (Friedrich Nietzsche, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Sigmund Freud).
Prose's latest book expands her repertoire even further. Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them is an indispensable examination of what makes great literature and explains the best way to read it. Prose brings the same wealth of humor and passion to this analytical work as she does to her fiction, making for another must-read in a body of work already abundant in must-reads.
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Prose rarely wastes an idea. In Blue Angel, the novel that the character Angela is writing is actually a discarded novel that Prose started before stopping because, in her own words, "it seemed so juvenile to me."
While she once had no problem slamming a book in one of her literary critiques, these days Prose has resolved to only review books that she actually likes. The ones that don't adhere to her high standards are simply returned to the senders.
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In 2000, Barnes & Noble.com interviewed Francine Prose about her book Blue Angel, academia, and her writing career.
Sometimes you just know someone is going to be fabulous.
The first hint that I would be as enchanted with author Francine Prose as I was with her new novel, Blue Angel, came when I called her to set up our interview. While trying to choose a meeting place where our conversation wouldn't be overwhelmed by clattering background noise, Prose offered without hesitation, "We can do it at my place." And then there was her place. Upon entering the home of Francine Prose, you are immediately aware that it is the abode of artists. Glorious paintings are perfectly arranged on the living room andnot to sound too new-agey herethe energy of the apartment is palpable. I didn't know at the time that her husband is a painter, but I probably should have guessed. (Anyone who reads Blue Angel would be safe in assuming that he is not a university administrator.)
In her new novel, Blue Angel, prose gleefully satirizes the current state of academic political correctness with provocative insight and impressive humor. Chock-full of hilarious, indelible scenes of academic life, Blue Angel chronicles the professional and personal undoing of a middle-aged creative writing professor, Ted Swenson, at the hands of a talented and seductive student.
I asked her why she chose to write about the politics of academic lifein particular, the vexing modern phenomenon of political correctness.
"Well, I teach, so I'm often in the middle of that. Fortunately, creative writing departments usually don't have that much to do with academic departments. But I know it's there. It filters back through my students. My students go to these terrible literature classes, and they come up with these nutty ideas about what you're allowed to do and what you're not allowed to do in writing. It's heartbreaking."
"They think, 'Oh, I can't really write a female character who's not incredibly self-activated and independent and together because I will be contributing to the oppression of women.' Well, no. You're actually just writing a character."
These days, Prose teaches at the New School, an experience she describes as "a dream." The New York City-based college is a far cry from the fictional setting of Blue Angel, a small, remote liberal arts school called Euston College. "Schools like Euston terrify me," she says. "With one moment of inattention, you lose your job."
Fear of losing one's job surfaces early in Blue Angel, when Ted Swenson, a creative writing teacher and novelist struggling to follow up his earlier success, is summoned to a mandatory meeting in which Euston College's policy on sexual harassment is being reviewed for the entire faculty and staff. As Swenson settles into his auditorium seat, he can't help but wonder if the increasingly bizarre sexual content of his students' writing could actually jeopardize his job. His feelings of concern, bordering on paranoia, are ones with which many professors can empathize. Prose explains that classroom sensitivity is so heightened that even she finds herself acting on the side of caution.
"If I go into a class to teach a story like Beckett's First Love, I'll [tell the class] that there's some dicey sexual material, and if anyone feels threatened by that, just don't show up for class that day. Why should I have to do this? It's a masterpiece of literature."
After reading Blue Angel, it's hard to imagine that anyone who likes to say what she truly thinks could ever be successful within the politics of academia.
"I don't have a real teaching job, and it's not accidental," Prose tells me happily. "After this book comes out, it might be impossible. On the other hand, I do have friends who teach who are just like me, and they've survived. They've managed. So I think, like with everything else, you just have to be careful what you say."
When a writing teacher isn't dodging the bullets of political correctness, there's always the issue of whether or not creative writing can actually be taught. Prose explains, "You can certainly teach people to edit their own work. You can teach people to pay attention to language. But you can't teach talent. Who knows what that is? The irony is that the really gifted ones don't need you at all and probably shouldn't be there."
Prose's first book, Judah The Pious, was published in 1973. She wrote the majority of the novel during a year spent living in India, after having left what she regards as a disastrous turn in a Harvard graduate program. Now, some 11 books later, Prose feels she has finally reached a new level of control over her craft.
"I don't think people make steady progress," she explains. "For example, I think my third and my fourth books were really worse than my first and second books. Now I feel like I'm actually learning to do some things that I wish I'd known 11 books ago! I have a much clearer sense of how to construct a plotline. You just get it little by little. And you learn how to do certain technical things. You learn what you can do without -- that you don't have to over-explain, that you can trust the reader."
And the reader can certainly trust Francine Prose. She is clearly in control of Ted Swenson -- every nuance of his thoughts and actions hits the right note. When I comment on her pitch-perfect portrayal of her hapless professor, she almost makes it sound easy: "He was so much fun! Also, I have to say that writing from the male point of view really helped. It was so liberating. I felt I had a certain distance from it and I could just go nuts and let him go nuts."
As Swenson gradually unravels, his wife, Sherri, can only collect her dignity and move out of the way. Like many marriages, the Swenson's survived years of ups and downs only to come unglued over a single, avoidable, and pathetic mistake. I asked Prose if most marriages are inherently doomed, subject to the frailties of men and women.
"I hope not! I'd like mine to last. Swenson is a guy who's looking to take a big fall; he just doesn't know it. And as far as Angela goes -- Swenson's love and nemesis -- anybody who teaches would know that a student like that is big trouble. And the fact that Swenson is drawn to her -- it's a kind of death wish. So I don't think it's about the impossibility of marriage, I think it's about this guy who gets to a certain point and just wants to pull the plug on his whole life and finds this particular way of doing it."
Swenson begins to realize what he's doing, what role he has cast himself in his own life, as he watches the 1930s Marlene Dietrich film The Blue Angel.
"The strangest thing about writing this novel is that I was having lunch with my previous editor, and they asked what my next project was going to be. I had no idea but I said, 'I'm going to write this novel based on The Blue Angel, set in a creative writing classroom.' It was like an out-of-body experience. I had seen the movie 15 years before. Then I watched it about ten times during the course of writing. I don't know, I think I'm always writing about obsession in a certain sense, and it's a movie about obsession. And I'd been thinking about academia, and the main character is a professor, so, how perfect."
So is sexual attraction between teachers and students merely the stuff of novels and films, or is this dynamic prevalent in real academic life? Prose says that sexual attraction between teachers and students is not only common, it's a good thing.
"I don't think that means you sleep with your students -- I think that's terrible. But I think, Who were the teachers you learned from in school? The ones you had big crushes on. Why do you want to please teachers? Is it simply because you love the subject so much? Sometimes, but not always."
If the sexual obsession depicted in Blue Angel were to make its way onto the big screen, Prose knows who would be her leading man and his Lolita: "Nick Nolte, definitely to play Swenson, and Angelina Jolie [for Angela]."
The role Prose finds herself playing these days can best be described as spokesperson for the obvious. Her recent article in The New York Times Magazine, "A Wasteland of One's Own," in which she criticized the poor quality of web sites, television, and movies geared for women, was met with a flood of responses. Women indicated that her article echoed the dissatisfaction they, too, felt with the products of mass media, a frustration that had yet to be formed as a public sentiment. Recalling the responses she read, Prose says, "I was really very moved by most of them. The Times did an online forum about it, and they got dozens of responses and sent some letters to me, and I did a couple of call-in talk shows. There were all these women saying, 'I never liked this stuff!'"
How does she decide what to write about? "In general, I like pieces that make me think about things that I wouldn't ordinarily have thought about. I liked the New York Times assignment because I don't think I would have gone on to ivillage.com or oxygen.com without someone saying, 'Go look and see.' That whole world of marketing to women...I certainly wouldn't have gone to see [the movie] Hanging Up if they hadn't sent me!"
But stating the so-called obvious is not always easy. There are plenty of people who don't want to hear it. Fortunately for us, Prose is not easily deterred. "I joke about stating the obvious -- and while it's always seemed like a handicap to have a compulsion to say the thing that everyone knows and no one will say, I've finally found a way to make it work."
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