Posted by: Tyler Mills | August 18, 2011

Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose

Reading Like A Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and Those Who Want to Write Them by Francine Prose is not at all what I expected. When my sister suggested I read the book she explained the basic premise, which I found to be sound and interesting.  Ms. Prose basically asks why writer’s today are so obsessed with learning to write by taking classes, reading books on writing, learning from authors, etc.  She argues that the great writers of the past didn’t have those resources and still managed to produce incredible stories. I was led to expect that she was going to explain how author’s of the past would have learned to write (which is by reading and practicing, which every book on writing I have ever read repeats frequently) and offer practical advice for aspiring writers to read and better learn from reading. There were several good tidbits of information along this line,  but as for advice in writing itself I was let down considerably as the book progressed (which may have been my fault for having false expectations).

First, let me say that Francine Prose obviously has a background in literature and literary fiction, and it is from that perspective that most of her experience and advice comes. I have never taken a literature class (though that will change shortly), and I have a pretty balanced appreciation of both “literary” and “genre” fiction. I know how to read critically I am generally able to find enjoyment of both types of books, though usually a different type of enjoyment. Just as I can enjoy listening to jazz and classical music for different reasons. I found the book dissatisfying because I expected practical advice and I got several hundred pages of the author rambling about her favorite literature.

Rather than discussing the concept of Story in and of itself, Ms. Prose focuses on close reading and writing. That is to say there were chapters on both sentences and paragraphs where she tried to explain (with long excerpts throughout) what she sees as beautiful and ideal sentences and paragraphs, even some that were in some ways contrary to the usual advice on utility of a sentence. She gave two pieces of advice that I did find interesting to ponder. First, she strongly suggests that the only way to really appreciate a work is to consciously drop your political and personal baggage at the door and enjoy the book for what it is, and from what mindset the author and characters were created from. Second, she suggests slowing down, reading and admiring the words and sentences carefully, “stopping to smell the roses” as it were. I found the advice interesting, and in my recent re-reading of The Once and Future King (review forthcoming!) I found that is was both easier, more relaxing, and much more thought provoking(what a clumsy sentence) to read it  slowly (it took me 8 days to finish The Once and Future King, whereas most books take me two or three).

Ms. Prose offers a fairly hefty suggested reading list with each of her chapters on sentence, paragraph, character, etc. of authors to read and admire their particular strengths. I had only heard of two or three of the authors, and the only one I had read anything of was Anton Chekhov (who is incredible).  Overall, this book offered a very different view of writing and literature then I have ever been exposed to before, and I’m not sure how I feel about it. I’m hoping my literature class this fall can help open my eyes a little bit to the “literature perspective” if you will, so I can better appreciate the kind of works Ms. Prose was talking about. Most of the time when I was Reading Like a Writer she was saying how great a certain author’s characters are, then there would be a series of really long excerpts from various works that I would read and not find that fantastic. Possible solutions: I’m blind. She’s full of it. *shrugs*

I guess I’ll just have to keep reading, keep writing, and find out for myself like all the great authors of old…



  1. I love this book – it’s up there with my favourite ‘How To Be a Writer’ books – a small, select group. Generally, I’m suspicious of the genre & leave it well alone. Ms Prose is an exception. A marvellous book which above all else, affirmed my own belief that writers learn best by reading.

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