Essays Fiction Issue

Close Reading

Learning to write by learning to read

I was fortunate to have good teachers, and friends who were also readers. The books I read became more challenging, better written, more substantial. Steinbeck, Camus. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Twain, Salinger, Anne Frank. Little beatniks, my friends and I were passionate fans of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti. We read Truman Capote, Carson McCullers, and the proto-hippie classics of Herman Hesse, Carlos Castenada—Mary Poppins for people who thought they’d outgrown the flying nanny. I must have been vaguely aware of the power of language, but only dimly, and only as it applied to whatever effect the book was having on me.

All of that changed with every mark I made on the pages of King Lear and Oedipus Rex. I still have my old copy of Sophocles, heavily underlined, covered with sweet, embarrassing notes-to-self (“irony?” “recognition of fate?”) written in my rounded, heartbreakingly neat, schoolgirl print. Like seeing a photograph of yourself as a child, encountering a handwriting that you know was once yours, but that now seems only dimly familiar, can inspire a confrontation with the mystery of time.

Focusing on language proved to be a practical skill, useful the way sight-reading with ease can come in handy for a musician. My high school English teacher had only recently graduated from a college where his own English professors taught what was called New Criticism, a school of thought that favored reading what was on the page with only passing reference to the biography of the writer or the period in which the text was written. Luckily for me, that approach to literature was still in fashion when I graduated and went on to college. At my university the faculty included a well-known professor and critic whose belief in close reading trickled down and influenced the entire humanities program. In French class we spent an hour each Friday afternoon working our way from The Song of Roland to Sartre, paragraph by paragraph, focusing on small sections for what was called the explication de texte.

On many occasions, of course, I had to skim as rapidly as I could to get through those survey courses that gave us two weeks to finish Don Quixote, ten days for War and Peace—courses designed to produce college graduates who could say they’d read the classics. By then I knew enough to regret having to read those books that way. And I promised myself that I would revisit them as soon as I could give them the time and attention they deserved.

Only once did my passion for reading steer me in the wrong direction, and that was when I let it persuade me to go to graduate school. There, I soon realized that my love for books was unshared by many of my classmates and professors. I had trouble understanding what they did love, exactly, and this gave me an anxious shiver that would later seem like a warning about what would happen to the teaching of literature over the decade or so after I dropped out of my Ph.D. program. That was when literary academia split into warring camps of deconstructionists, Marxists, feminists, and so forth, all battling for the right to tell students that they were reading “texts” in which ideas and politics trumped what the writer actually wrote.

I left graduate school and became a writer. I wrote my first novel in India, in Bombay, where I read as omnivorously as I had as a child, rereading classics that I borrowed from the old-fashioned, musty, beautiful university library that seemed to have acquired almost nothing written after 1920. Afraid of running out of books, I decided to slow myself down by reading Proust in French.

Reading a masterpiece in a language for which you need a dictionary is in itself a course in reading word by word. And as I puzzled out the gorgeous, labyrinthine sentences, I discovered how reading a masterpiece can make you want to write one.

A work of art can start you thinking about some aesthetic or philosophical problem; it can suggest some new method, some fresh approach to fiction. But the relationship between reading and writing is rarely so clear-cut, and in fact my first novel could hardly have been less Proustian.

More often the connection has to do with whatever mysterious promptings make you want to write. It’s like watching someone dance and then secretly, in your own room, trying out a few steps. I often think of learning to write by reading as something like the way I first began to read. I had a few picture books I’d memorized and pretended I could read, as a sort of party trick that I did repeatedly for my parents, who were also pretending—in their case, to be amused. I never knew exactly when I crossed the line from pretending to actually being able, but that was how it happened.

Not long ago a friend told me that her students complained that reading masterpieces made them feel stupid. But I’ve always found that the better the book I’m reading, the smarter I feel, or, at least, the more able to imagine that I might, someday, become smarter. I’ve also heard fellow writers say that they cannot read while working on a book of their own, for fear that Tolstoy or Shakespeare might influence them. I’ve always hoped they would influence me, and I wonder if I would have taken so happily to being a writer if it meant that I couldn’t read during the years I might need to complete a novel.

To be truthful, some writers stop you dead in your tracks by making you see your own work in the most unflattering light. Each of us will meet a different harbinger of personal failure, some innocent genius chosen for reasons having to do with what we see as our own inadequacies. The only remedy I have found is to read the work of a writer whose work is entirely different from another, though not necessarily more like your own—a difference that will remind you of how many rooms there are in the house of art.

Presented by

Francine Prose is the author of eleven acclaimed works of fiction, including the National Book Award finalist Blue Angel. Her essay in this issue was adapted from her forthcoming book, Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them.

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