Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them by Francine Prose is a collection of essays that addresses different aspect of storytelling—from structure (paragraph, sentence) to details (characterization, dialogue, gesture). Drawing on a variety of published works, Prose frequently quotes from novels and short stories to solidify her suggestions in concrete examples.
The title couldn’t be more perfect and Prose is obviously immersed in the literary criticism approach of closely reading the text to define its own meaning. Rather than looking at the author’s life or society’s structure or the literature of the past that influenced and informed the text being read, the text stands alone as a tool for interpretation. So why does a character say one thing? How does the choice of narrative voice define, for the reader, how the text will be approached? What purpose does this word serve over another?
It is in using examples drawn from her own recommended reading that Prose creates a remarkably useful text for anyone who aspires to write. By first saying why something matters and then showing, by quoting (sometimes briefly and occasionally for more than a couple of pages) from an exemplary text, she shows the reader what she means. Theory becomes practical and it stands to reason that a writer would want to consider how other stories are told even when those stories are so far removed from the one the writer is trying to create.
Naturally, the book concludes with a list of recommended reading (which Prose urges must be read immediately) and her choices are interesting as much for their bias as for their potential relevance for the contemporary writer. One could probably debate whether her choices are even good enough to be urged upon the reader and there is certainly room for discussion about what books could be added or even replaced.
I confess, I occasionally found myself wanting to skim and fighting not to do so, often frustrated by the “spoilers” that Prose inevitably throws out with impunity as she quotes not only from the beginning moments of a story but the endings or even climactic moments, giving away the entire plot in a dismissive sacrifice on the altar of her own demands to prove her point. Of course, she quotes from so many stories, it can be hoped that time would allow forgetfulness to do its work and eventually even someone who read every page carefully and closely will have forgotten how much Prose gives away and approach some of her quoted and recommended reading with fresh and eager to be surprised eyes.
I know that I will very likely find myself reading more carefully any scene or description, any character or bit of dialogue, that especially engages me, to consider what choices the writer made and how I might make similarly effective choices in my own writing.