Interviews Fiction Issue

Reading and Writing

Novelist and critic Francine Prose talks about creativity, literary craftsmanship, and her new book, Reading Like a Writer.
book cover

Reading Like a Writer [Click the title
to buy this book]

by Francine Prose
288 pages

Gabriel Garcia Márquez once told an interviewer at the Paris Review that the first time he read Kafka’s Metamorphosis it nearly knocked him clear off his bed. “I didn’t know anyone was allowed to write things like that,” he said. “If I had known, I would have started writing a long time ago. So immediately I started writing.”

Márquez’s impassioned response, his realization that literature’s possibilities are limitless, and the implicit connection between reading and the desire to write are exactly the point of Francine Prose’s new book, Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them. Prose, a heavyweight in contemporary American fiction, learned to write by reading, and Reading Like a Writer is both a testimonial to her own education as a writer, and, as the title suggests, a guide to the pleasures of close reading.

Addressing both readers and aspiring writers, Prose gives example after example of literary masterpieces and offers techniques for reading more attentively, for noticing and thrilling in the language on the page. Reading for her is “something like the way you experience a master painting, a Rembrandt or a Velasquez, by viewing it from not only far away but also up close in order to see the brush strokes.”  Prose delights in Katherine Mansfield’s inspired word choice, the rhythm of Virginia Woolf’s sentences, and Chekhov’s telling details and the objective treatment of his characters. She also cites specific instances, like Márquez’s experience with Metamorphosis, where reading has helped deepen her understanding of her own craft. (Once, when she was having a hard time finishing a story’s particularly violent ending, she turned to Isaac Babel and learned from his use of lyricism as a precursor to violence.)

Reading Like a Writer comes from the wisdom of a seasoned teacher of literature, a longtime journalist and book reviewer, and the author of fourteen works of fiction. She has a guarded enthusiasm for MFA programs; the book, in part, is a criticism of where some of the MFA program culture has gone astray, as if some writing workshops have become unmoored from the literary masterpieces that inspired them. (To see her version of a writing workshop gone horribly and hilariously wrong, read Blue Angel, her novel which was a finalist for the National Book Award). Prose says that writing Reading Like a Writer was a passionate endeavor but it also appears to be an endeavor in gratitude, both to her literature teachers (she has dedicated the book to three of them) and to the masters of her craft.

We spoke by telephone on June 28.

—Jessica Murphy

Francine Prose
Francine Prose

The title of your new book, Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them, indicates that your audience is twofold. Why did you decide to address both readers and aspiring writers? 

If I had to really characterize the book I’d say it’s about the pleasure of reading and about learning to write. I gave the book in galleys to this wonderful young writer, maybe the second or third person to see it at that stage, and he read it and said to me, “It’s like Harold Bloom, but written by and for human beings.” And that made me so happy. It’s what I had in mind. That is—Bloom’s obvious passion for literature, but on a more human, approachable engaged level; less lofty but, I would like to think, not especially less intelligent.

I’m considering using it for one of my writing classes.

Yeah, well that’s my hope. It really is my hope that people will use it in classes – and not just for the obvious reasons. For me, writing this book was a pretty passionate endeavor. What I’m hoping is that some of that passion gets through. Because it seems to me that the most important thing in any discussion of reading and writing is that intense commitment to the whole process.

While I was preparing for this interview, I noticed that you were interviewed for The Atlantic in 1998 by Katie Bolick. You said in that conversation that you became a writer because you were an avid reader and that you were often perplexed by the fact that some of your students who wanted to be writers weren’t reading—or weren’t reading passionately.

That hasn’t gotten any better, let me tell you. In fact, I can look back and identify a few incidents that led up to my writing the book. Several of them took place in classrooms. In one instance, I was at a graduate MFA colloquium and a student asked me, “How do you spell Turgenev?” And I thought, Uh oh. We’re in trouble here. Another time, in yet another graduate classroom, the students asked, as they sometimes do, “What are you reading?” I said, “I’m rereading Crime and Punishment.” And there’s this feeling you get when there’s nothing coming back at you from the room. That’s the feeling I was getting. So I said, “Have any of you read Crime and Punishment?” Silence. “Have any of you read anything by Dostoevsky?” More silence. And these were graduate students.

I don’t quite get it. On a very basic level, I can’t figure out why people would want to write unless they like to read. I mean, what would be the point? For the incredibly glamorous fast track lifestyle? I don’t think so.

Presented by

Jessica Murphy Moo

Jessica Murphy, a former Atlantic staff editor, is the 2006-2007 Milton Center writing fellow in Seattle, Washington. Her writing has appeared in Poets & Writers Magazine and her fiction has appeared in Memorious magazine.

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