Is a book an axe for the frozen sea within us or just a handy gadget for fixing stuff that bothers us? In recent years, a spate of books has heralded the can-do spirit of literature. In 1997’s The Year of Reading Proust, Phyllis Rose meditated on the power of Remembrance of Things Past to bring her life into plumb, and since then, books have only become more prescriptive. In Proust Was a Neuroscientist, Jonah Lehrer likened classic authors to pathbreaking scientists. Ella Berhoud and Susan Elderkin’s The Novel Cure promises “751 Books to Cure What Ails You.” Andy Miller’s The Year of Reading Dangerously is a memoir about how Bulgakov and Eliot “saved my life” and presumably might save yours, too. It is no longer enough for Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary to provide comfort or enlightenment — those despairing, conflicted ladies have more practical work to do.
Roy Peter Clark’s The Art of X-Ray Reading is a more humble entry in the take-two-Twains-and-call-me-in-the-morning genre. Clark is a longtime reporter and writing coach most closely associated with the Poynter Institute, an esteemed journalists’ training camp. In that capacity, I admire Clark greatly. Clear news writing is a tough gig — even great novelists can be hilariously bad at ventriloquizing it in fiction — and Clark has a talent for exploring the structure and style of good writing with an avuncular wit. In X-Ray Reading he doesn’t want to improve your being, just your writing, but those great books are once again commanded to put on their coveralls. Through twenty-five classics, he encourages us “to add some sophisticated tools to our own writing workbenches.”
Whatever labor-related metaphor he chooses — X-rays and ophthalmology, workbenches and tool sheds — Clark’s point is that high-end literature can do more for everyday wordsmiths than they might think. Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God shows us how to use metaphor to evoke sensuality; F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is a clinic in effective repetition; Flannery O’Connor and Shirley Jackson reveal the power of foreshadowing; Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad stump for the importance of varying your language, be it through agony columns or PowerPoint. “Let texts talk wherever they appear,” Clark concludes of West and Egan. “Use them to advance the narrative, signify character, reflect setting, establish mood and theme.”
On the surface, this is a goals-oriented variation of close reading, the preferred analytical method of the New Critics of the 1940s, who urged readers to find a work’s value within the text, not the messy and all-but-unknowable territory of the author’s real life. Clark has a Ph.D. in medieval literature — he writes wisely on The Canterbury Tales and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight — but he tends to avoid calling what he’s doing criticism. Instead, X-Ray Reading occupies an in-between space: It’s a book that reveals a love for literature, but only so far as it can be put to practical use.
As somebody who’s spent time in a classroom with bright students who still labored hard at subject-verb agreement, I sympathize with any effort to make the act of turning a sentence accessible. But on the evidence of the “Writing Lessons” that conclude each chapter, Clark’s strategy has its limits. Much of his advice is of the familiar workshop variety (show-don’t-tell, avoid repetition — unless you’re Fitzgerald, maybe), while others feel more specific to the works at hand. Lolita calls us to “hunt for and gather the names of the things you write about. Get the name of the dog, the make and model of the sports car, the brand of the beer.” M.F.K. Fisher‘s food writing reminds us to “mark your writing for any elements that might appeal to the ear, skin, nose, and mouth.” Jackson’s “The Lottery” offers a handy pro tip for livening up a story’s dramatic arc: “Kill someone at the end.”
But did Jackson’s classic story fail because she didn’t fully characterize Mrs. Hutchinson’s scream or name the town where she was killed? No, and of course Clark doesn’t mean for us to take all of his advice in all cases. But the book at times accidentally reveals how slippery good literature can be when we apply prescriptive qualities to it. Clark’s favorite Shakespeare line is “The Queen, my lord, is dead” (from Macbeth), in part because of its firm declarative start (it “carries weight”). But endings matter, too, and he especially admires the way Sylvia Plath closes sentences in The Bell Jar. (“Any word or phrase placed at the end of a sentence stabs the reader.”) Even so, part of the power of John Hersey’s Hiroshima is the way he tucks “the real heat of the sentence” into the middle of a line by way of surprise.
So, then: Write sentences with strong beginnings, middles, and ends.
Little of Clark’s advice is bad. (Though I do question his argument that a key lesson to be drawn from Moby-Dick is to “embrace brevity.”) And his love for the books is plain. Yet the thing that makes literature great is that it resists efforts to put it to such pragmatic purposes. Writing about Chaucer’s use of weather, Clark makes a recommendation that’s impractical but revealing. “A certain random purposefulness (sorry for the oxymoron) may offer writers the most choices and create the most realistic effects,” he writes. But there’s no need to apologize — random purposefulness is what draws us to these books in the first place, even if they have little practical to teach us.