Reading Like a Writer

Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer is billed as “a guide for people who love books and for those who want to write them.” I think Prose does have some good advice for writers in the book, but more than that, this book is, as the blurb from USA Today indicates, “A Love letter to the pleasures of reading.” Prose points to excellent examples of dialogue and characterization. She favors a close reading approach to reading and enjoying literature.

Prose insists, rightly, that if you want to write, you need to be a reader, and she notes that it’s astonishingly true that many young writers are not reading. I have to admit I agree with Prose. I don’t understand why someone who wants to write wouldn’t be reading just about everything. Reading is a proper writer’s education. It was reading other books that made me think I could try to write them, and I just can’t imagine writing without reading.

In the interview at the end of the book, Prose notes, “One of the sad things that I think partly accounts for the decline of the audience for reading and books is that people aren’t being encouraged to read for pleasure” (8). Of book clubs, she says that “[T]hey do get people reading and talking about reading. But on the other hand, when you’re reading for a book club, the whole time you’re thinking, I have to have an opinion and I’m going to have to defend it to these people. The whole notion of being swept away by a book pretty much goes out the window” (8). I think she makes some valid points. I have a lot of students who are not readers. I have some students who become readers (and sometimes, you’d be surprised how little encouragement is needed). The key is that students are choosing to read for pleasure. That’s not to say I think we should do away with required reading. I happen to think sometimes, some real good comes from being required to read a book. Many of my students this year told me they were not looking forward to Frankenstein, but after they read it, they really liked it. Would they ever have picked it up on their own? Maybe not. I know I enjoyed some of the reading I was required to do in school (not all of it, surely). We can pull out the old saw about everything that is competing with reading nowadays, but I think that we have always had readers and nonreaders, even when there wasn’t as much to compete with. Prose thinks that the problem with required reading is often that “[T]eachers are teaching books that they themselves find boring to students who are bored by them. And they’re teaching them in a way that bores the students” (8-9). There’s some unfortunate truth to this observation. In some cases, curricula are so set in stone that teachers have no options about which books they teach. One fortunate aspect of my own teaching position is that I can select all the books my students will study. If teachers are allowed to select books they are passionate about, sometimes that passion transfers to the students. I’m not going to say they’ll always like required reading, but students are more apt to like required reading that the teacher so clearly enjoys.

One very interesting chapter in this book, “Learning from Chekhov,” examines the rules and advice writing teachers give students. Prose notes for each time she has told a student not to do something with writing, she finds an example in Chekhov where it works. I thought that chapter was interesting because it essentially says that the most important rule to know about writing is that there are no rules. It’s a somewhat frightening and liberating idea. What we can do (and should do, in Prose’s view) is use the masters as models.

Prose has some eclectic tastes in literature, and she mentioned a great many books I’d not heard of, much less read. She includes a list of recommended books that includes many of the greats of the Western canon in addition to some surprising choices I wouldn’t necessarily have thought would be on such a list. Examples include mainstays like Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights, The Great Gatsby, and Moby Dick, but some interesting choices include Charles Dickens’s Dombey and Son. I had never heard of this novel, and thus it wouldn’t have been the usual choice for a Dickens novel, I should think. Prose is fond of the Russians, a proclivity that shines through almost every page of this book. I do find it helpful that Prose recommends certain translators for literature that isn’t written in English. It can be daunting to select which version to read when a book has been translated multiple times, and a little guidance is helpful.

I think people who truly love books and reading (especially English majors who live for this sort of thing) will enjoy Prose’s book, but I’m not sure it would be of any help to students who are trying to learn about literature or writing. Instead, I would recommend Thomas C. Foster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor or How to Read Novels Like a Professor.


Yesterday I read the chapter “Character” in Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer, and she used examples from Jane Austen’s novels Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice in order to illustrate characterization both through exposition and dialogue. I found myself agreeing with much of what Prose says in this chapter.  Of Austen’s characterization of Mr. John Dashwood and his wife:

Austen is more likely to create her men and women by telling us what they think, what they have done, and what they plan to do. What matters most is how Mr. Dashwood views his own good deed. In that marvelous barbed sentence in which everthing hinges on one word, then—”He then really though himself equal to it”—Austen hints at how long his generosity will last, how long he will continue to rise above himself. Mr. John Dashwood is thrilled by his charity, which, it should be emphasized, is in fact not magnanimity but fairness. He meditates on his benevolence with such self-regard and self-congratulation, with such acute awareness of how his actions will seem to others, and with so much unacknowledged regret and obsessivenss that we can easily imagine how strongly his resolve will withstand his wife’s suggestion that he may have been a bit hasty. (121-122)

The bit of characterization that Prose quotes from Sense and Sensibility occurs after Mr. John Dashwood has promised his father that he will take care of his stepmother and half sisters.

When he gave his promise to his father, he meditated within himself to increase the fortunes of his sisters by the present of a thousand pounds a-piece. He then really though himself equal to it. The prospect of four thousand a year, in addition to his present income, besides the remaining half of his own mother’s fortune, warmed his heart, and made him feel capable of generosity.—”Yes, he would give them three thousand pounds: It would be liberal and handsome! It would be enough to make them completely easy. Three thousand pounds! he could spare so considerable a sum with little inconvenience.”—He thought of it all day long, and for many days successively, and he did not repent. (qtd. in Prose 121)

From Pride and Prejudice, Prose quotes an early passage of dialogue between Mr. and Mrs. Bennet regarding Mrs. Bennet’s request that Mr. Bennet visit Mr. Bingley in order to introduce the family to the new resident of Netherfield and thereby increase the prospects that one of the five Bennet girls will marry him, at least in Mrs. Bennet’s mind. The characterization Austen accomplishes in this conversation is, in fact, one of the reasons the novel endeared itself to me early on. As Prose says,

The calm forbearance which Mr. Bennet answers his wife’s first question (“he replied that he had not”) provides and immediate and reasonbly accurate idea of his character. Driven to impatience, she says what he was expecting to hear: namely, that a rich young man has moved into the neighborhood. When Mrs. Bennet crows, “What a fine thing for our girls!” we can assume that Mr. Bennet knows the answer before he asks if their new neighbor is married or single. And he’s toying with his wife when he inquires, “How can it affect them?” (qtd. in Prose 127)

Later, Prose comments on the subtle characterization of Elizabeth Bennet, whom we haven’t met in person, through her relationship to each of her parents.

The next paragraph establishes Lizzy’s role in the family; she’s neither so beautiful as Jane nor so pleasant as Lydia, but she is gifted with an intelligence that endears her to her father. Austen invites us to consider a general truth that we may have observed about what sort of girl becomes her father’s favorite in a family of daughters. Elizabeth’s intelligence means more to her father than it does to her mother, who is perhaps more attuned to the fact that intelligence may not be a virtue in a young woman whom one hopes to marry off. (127-128)

Prose makes some excellent points about characterization in the whole chapter, using other examples from novels with which I am not familiar. As I read, I thought about the fact that all of my favorite novels had excellent characters and characterization at their heart. Even more than plot, characterization seems to be what appeals to me as a reader. The books I’ve devoured most quickly and enjoy re-reading universally have good characters—people I would like to know (and people I wouldn’t!). They are people who seem very real to me. The heart of a good novel, to me, is its characters. I have actually enjoyed books that are not written well if the characters are real to me in some way (Twilight series).

Here is my short list of books with excellent characters:

I’m fully aware of the wide range of literary merit displayed in this list, but one thing I think all the books do have in common is that they all have memorable, well-drawn characters.

Something Rotten

Jasper Fforde’s novel Something Rotten is the fourth in his Thursday Next series. Famed Literary Detective and Head of Jurisfiction Thursday Next misses the real world and decides to leave fiction to see what she can do about uneradicating her husband, Landen Parke-Laine. Thursday learns in this installment that things are indeed much weirder than we can know.

While I have enjoyed the entire series, I found this book more confusing than the others. The various threads of the story don’t intertwine until the end, and by that time, I had forgotten enough of the details that I was still confused. Of course, I’m a slow reader, and it’s partly because of that fact that I had difficulty putting the ending together. A reader who finishes more quickly than I might fare better. Fforde is a book nerd’s writer. His allusions to literature and history and enjoyable and entertaining. I liked the book enough that I’ll continue to read more Fforde books, but I’m going to take a break from Fforde for a while and read something else.

My next book will be Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them. Of course, I’m still working on Wilkie Collins’s novel The Woman in White on my iPhone. Because Francine Prose autographed my copy of this book, I don’t want to write in it, so I’ll post my reflections as I read here.