Thursday, September 13, 2007

Book review: Reading like a Writer

Sarah Tanburn reviews Reading like a Writer, by Francine Prose, published by Harper Perennial (£7.19 on Amazon)

Living on a boat every book you keep has to work its passage. Like any avid reader or writer, I always want to keep every book that might be useful one day, that captured my imagination or had something to teach me.

It is with great relief then, that I am giving away nearly all the how-to-manuals, the guides to structure, plot, characterisation, even dialogue. I plan to keep only two, just two, great books which contain so much wisdom on the challenge of the page.

The Paris Review Interviews Vol 1 (Canongate, 2006, £10.49 on Amazon), collects sixteen of its extraordinary discussions with great writers. Worth it just for Rebecca West's acerbic judgements on her fellows, Billy Wilder's pragmatic assessment of a writer's place and Borges' sly humour, this is inimitable guidance by the greats on keeping on writing - one sentence, one word at a time. They don't all agree with each other of course, but that's part of the fun. One of my favourites is Hemmingway, grumpy but always seeking to say exactly what he means; he contradicts the writing group mantra to 'write what you know', when he likens the work of writing to an iceberg: “Anything you know you can eliminate, and it only strengthens your iceberg. It is the part that doesn't show … [of 'The Old Man and the Sea'] I've seen the marlin mate and know about that. So I leave that out…”.

The other 'how-to' book that's staying on board is Francine Prose's wonderful meditation on learning from great writing. She is a journalist, novelist, teacher and avid reader. Her argument is that we read, if we read at all, too fast, without sufficient attention to language; she wants us to, “read closely, word by word, sentence by sentence, pondering each deceptively minor decision the writer ha[s] made. “
That remark alone has made me a more thoughtful writer, more aware of the specifics of punctuation and word choice.

She takes us with her through a series of essays on words, sentences, paragraphs, the fundamental building blocks. From these she talks of narration and character, dialogue, details and gesture. On each of these topics she gives a wealth of examples, and a clear-eyed course in taking your own writing and the writing of others more seriously than you had believed possible. There are so many examples, but one can spend valuable time pondering her comment that, “one mark of bad written dialogue is that it only doing one thing, at most, at a time.”

Or consider her ode to sentences: “beauty in a sentence, is ultimately as difficult to quantify or describe as beauty in a painting or a human face …if you are even thinking in these terms – that is, if you are even considering what might constitute strong, vigorous, energetic and clear sentences – you are already far in advance of wherever you were before you were conscious of the sentence as something deserving our deep respect and enraptured attention.”

I was once told in a writing class that the paragraph was the smallest unit of writing that should be considered during revision. I'd always struggled with this, as someone who agonises over each comma and conjunction, so I found Prose's comment most satisfying.

Prose bases her approach on reading good writing. She repeatedly uses examples from Tolstoy, Chekhov, Hemmingway, Woolf. She is not condescending or arrogant about it; she does not assume we are all post-graduate literature students. Indeed, she explicitly hopes we aren't. But she argues that there is always something to learn as a writer from reading the greats.

“The advantage of reading widely, as opposed to trying to formulate a series of general rules, is that we learn there are no general rules, only individual examples to help point you in the direction in which you might wish to go.”

Thus she cites party scenes from Tolstoy and Joyce to show how to handle such multi-character dialogue. Woolf's opening sentence in her essay 'On Being Ill' is deconstructed with love and attention to point the way lucidity, wit and grace. She makes the excellent point that being influenced by writers such as this is no bad thing. I would not complain if I was writing like Salinger or Hemmingway, Woolf or Rebecca West.

There is great charity and humility in Prose's approach. She devotes a chapter to reading Chekhov's short stories, describing how each time she thought she had given her class a clear piece of advice, she would find a story that contradicted her. Her last chapter 'Reading for Courage' takes us into broader territory, talking about the value of art (a book being the only piece of art you can take on the bus, she reminds us). She cites Babel, shot by Stalin for writing, and reminds that “Art implies a kind of freedom, the freedom of choice, of possibility, of the individual imagination.”

This is quite a challenge, to feel that our own efforts to write, our own lives as readers require us to engage with such matters. Again, I found it moving and inspiring, to be reminded why some books are better than others, what tools will help bolster my own judgement, and how that can feed my own writing and editing.

The book closes with a reading list. It's a little daunting, as I find I've only read half of them and feel motivated to re-read the old friends, closely, one word at a time. I'm pleased to say that quite a few of those that I have read have survived to be kept on the boat, such as Moby Dick, Anna Karenina and Pride and Prejudice. As for the rest, well there's all the space created by giving away the other writing manuals. That'll do nicely.

1 comment:

Maribel said...

Good post.