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.

Do you think that reading is not being stressed enough in MFA programs, or is it something that’s happening before that?

I think it’s happening before that. In most MFA programs, or certainly the ones I’ve taught at, there’s usually a literature seminar that goes along with the writing workshop. 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. As I say somewhere in the book, book clubs have had both a positive and negative effect. On the one hand, they 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.

I’ve noticed that high school students can have a certain resistance to reading if it’s something that’s imposed on them, whereas if they can discover a book on their own, they’re more apt to be passionate about reading and to love the book.

I think it’s partly that teachers 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. It’s just this cycle of boredom that goes on and on and round and round. Whereas reading is the least boring thing you can do. It’s so engaging and it’s so endlessly satisfying, really. The idea of it becoming associated in people’s minds with tedium is kind of tragic.

This raises the question about “how” to read. There have been any number of people who have weighed in on this. Joyce Carol Oates, in her essay “To a Young Writer,” advises aspiring writers to read without design. Elizabeth Bishop, in one of her letters to a young writer, advised reading everything by a certain poet and then moving on – starting with the past and progressing to one’s contemporaries. What’s your advice on the “how”?

I think the most important thing—and it’s what I say in the book over and over—is to focus on what’s directly in front of you on the page; to read especially for the language. Too often students are being taught to read as if literature were some kind of ethics class or civics class—or worse, some kind of self-help manual. In fact, the important thing is the way the writer uses the language. I think there are writers who would be read more—and, conversely, writers who would never be read at all—if people actually looked at how well or how badly they wrote. In most cases, I would rather read something that’s written beautifully and doesn’t grapple with grand themes than something apparently slighter that actually has a kind of marvelous and fresh and invigorating approach to the language.

You begin Reading Like a Writer with the age-old, often very divisive question: Can creative writing be taught? I wonder if you might expound on what you get into in the book and why, in your view, this is a particularly difficult question to answer.

Well, I think certain things can be taught. I think editing can be taught. Once you’ve written something, it’s very hard to assess what you’ve done. But the first time or the second time or the fourth time that someone says to you, “Look, you don’t need these ten words; one word will do perfectly well,” or, “This whole sentence or this whole paragraph can be cut,” that’s a learning experience, and it’s certainly the most important thing that can be taught in a writing class. I also think you can teach writing through literature. You can say, “Look, James Joyce has written the greatest party scene that has ever been written,” or “Tolstoy has written the most marvelous horse racing scene. And if it happens to be that you want to write a party scene or a horse racing scene, you might want to go look and see how geniuses have done it and take a lesson.” But can talent be taught? I don’t think so.

I cringed when I read this passage in your book: “Imagine…Kafka enduring the seminar in which his classmates inform him that, frankly, they just don’t believe the part about the guy waking up one morning to find he’s a giant bug.” As someone who’s been through an MFA program, I can just hear that happening. It’s frightening! People often make the claim that one of the dangers of the workshop setting is that it produces cookie-cutter stories, and styles that are too similar, or too similar to the tastes of the instructor. Have you seen this happen? How, as a teacher of writing, do you avoid it?

For one thing, I think that the idea of writing by committee, or learning to write by committee is insanity. It’s just simply insanity. I mean, writing is a very solitary process. It’s all about being different from everything else—not the same. So when you’re writing to satisfy the tastes of a group, and presumably you know those tastes after a while, that’s actually quite dangerous. One of the things I do when I’m teaching a literature class to MFA students—and I much prefer teaching a literature class to a writing workshop—is make up a reading list based on masterpieces that would just wither and die in a workshop setting. Things like Beckett’s First Love or Metamorphosis. The list is endless. You can just hear the workshop saying something like, “I think we should know what his mother looked like.” When I’m teaching one of these classes I actually can’t stop myself from saying the things that I imagine would be said about the books in a workshop, and this kind of whining, querulous tone creeps into my voice.

Would you advise a young writer to go to an MFA program or would you say that thoughtful reading is a better way to go?

I’ll tell you quite frankly what I would advise: if you’re getting money or some kind of scholarship, I would go without a question, because it gives you two years to write. That’s two years where you don’t have to wait tables; two years to take your work seriously. And if you’re really gifted, it’s pretty hard to lose that in the course of a workshop. On the other hand—and perhaps I shouldn’t say this because so many of my friends, and I myself at many points, have been so dependent on workshops for making a living—if you’re going to spend two years and come out the other end $80,000 in the hole, I’d think a million times before doing it. But an MFA program does do many things for you. You do form a community. I have friends now who are even older than I am who went to the Iowa writers workshop before I even knew there was such a thing as a workshop and who studied with John Berryman and Donald Justice and other great writers and who made friends who they’re still friends with forty years later. That seems to me invaluable. You make lifelong friendships, and you find people who will be your readers long after you’re out of the workshop—people whose voices and opinions you depend on. But that’s quite different from taking everything that every idiot in your class says seriously.

Why do you prefer teaching literature to the fiction workshop?

Well, in literature workshops the writer isn’t in the room. In many cases, the writer isn’t in the world at all anymore, so Tolstoy isn’t going to get his feelings hurt by what gets said about his work in my class. Beyond that, I only pick things that I think are masterpieces and have been around for hundreds of years for a reason. Theycan be learned from and can fill you with a desire to write and to be part of whatever universe those works exist in. Also, I would like to flatter myself that if for whatever reason, God forbid, a student comes out of an MFA program and doesn’t become a writer, he or she will still know better how to read as a result of having been in my class. So I don’t feel those twinges of conscience that I sometimes feel in a fiction workshop, teaching young writers who may not end up becoming writers.

How do your students respond to the close reading that you do? At one point in your book you mention that in some of your classes you’ve only gotten through two pages in a two-hour class because you’ve been going over it so closely. 

You’d think it would be the most tedious thing that ever happened. You would really imagine that this would be the most boring class you’ve ever taken in your entire life. But in fact, it’s surprisingly lively because students kind of “get it” right away. When you’re doing a John Cheever story and looking at the brilliance of each word choice and how much every sentence is telling you without telling you and—that dreadful word—“unpacking” a sentence for what it communicates, there’s something kind of exhilarating about it and energizing. Four or five weeks into every semester I find myself thinking—Oh my god they’re so smart, I had no idea they were all such geniuses—because it’s something that you just get how to do. It’s a great thing to see happen in students, undergraduates too. It’s equally, if not more exhilarating, to teach undergraduates because in most cases they haven’t been taught to read that way, and it’s thrilling for them. I’d be equally happy teaching a class in an old age home, because it’s not as if it’s some special arcane thing that only someone who wants to write can do. In fact, anyone who loves to read might be incredibly relieved to be told, “Look, pay attention to the language. You don’t have to have this grand opinion and you don’t have to read this with a view to figuring out how the writer screwed up in some way.” It’s just about the pleasure of language.

I had to laugh as I was reading the many workshop classroom scenes in your novel Blue Angel. It seemed the perfect match to looking at Reading Like a Writer.

Well, you know that’s the writing class from hell. It’s the worst-case scenario. Some of those students were based on students I had—but from over many years.  I just basically took the most difficult students I’d ever had and put them all in the same class, the most personality disordered, the most dysfunctional.

The writing workshop and the way it’s structured, is something that’s pretty easy to poke fun at. When Swenson, the writing teacher in Blue Angel, is trying to stop someone from ripping somebody’s heart out and saying, “No we’re going to say something nice first—”

I can’t remember if I come right out and say it in the novel, but there’s something essentially sadistic about the whole process. I mean, to sit there and have the love of your life—your work—something that close to your heart and soul, just ripped apart by strangers…

And not to be able to say anything.

Yes—and not be able to say anything. Who thought that up? It’s so cruel. And everybody essentially knows it’s so cruel, but that’s one of the many things you’re not allowed to say. This whole language of euphemism has sprung up around the inability to be honest. You can’t say, “This just bored the hell out of me.” So instead you say, desperately, “I think you should show instead of tell.” Where’d that come from? I mean, tell that to Jane Austen!

There is this common vocabulary that comes out of the MFA program – the “show don’t tell.”

“Whose story is this?”

“What’s the occasion?”

“What’s at stake here for the characters?”

If you go into an MFA program you’re going to come out with this vocabulary, even if you don’t necessarily become a better writer.

Well, yeah, because the fact is that when someone says, “What’s at stake here?” what they may mean is,  “Why would anyone waste their time writing this crap?”, but no one’s going to say that, thank God. Occasionally I’ve taught at writers’ conferences or in programs where two writers teach together. Sometimes it’s fantastic. I’ve taught with Stuart Dybeck, for example, and Diane Johnson, and I’ve thought, Gee, I would pay to be in this workshop because hearing what this person has to say about writing is so fascinating and enlightening. But other times I’ve co-taught with people who just mouth all the platitudes of the workshop. That’s a very difficult position because you’re sitting there listening to your colleague say, “Whose story is this?” and you’re trying not to say, “Well whose story is The Brothers Karamazov?”

That’s exactly what you do in Chapter 10, your chapter on Chekhov.  I read this Chekhov chapter and I thought, Oh this is so brave. You go to the moments when your knee-jerk reaction would be to give these rules to a student—a person can’t commit suicide for no good reason or you can’t just switch point of view on a whim—and you find a story by Chekhov that disproves them.

Rules that are out of nowhere, that just have nothing to do with anything.

As a teacher, how do you run a workshop? Do you have techniques for saving yourself from those knee-jerk reactions?

I do. Instead of saying something like, “I think we should know more about what his mother was like,” I try to come up with some examples from literature that that might be helpful for the writer to look at. And there are certain things that I feel the compulsion to point out every so often about reading and writing. For example, I often hear myself telling the class, “You know we’re not the character’s therapists.  And we shouldn’t function as sort of a group therapy session for the characters in the story; they’re characters in a story.”

That speaks to another of these writing program truisms that you take issue with in the final chapter: that the reader has to sympathize with the characters.

Yeah, sympathy for the characters is not a requirement.

Presumably, for a reader to make it through an entire novel, they have to care about the character—but not have to like them?

I don’t know. I mean, I don’t know what you have to do. Again, Beckett is an example I always come up with because do you care about Molloy? I don’t know that you do. Maybe in the sense that everything he says is incredibly interesting and weird and amusing and strange. But that’s not the same as wanting to go for a drink with him. You end up admiring the incredible gift Beckett has for using language to express a unique and very particular and perceptive and strange idea about the world. But that’s not the same as caring about Molloy.

At one point in the book you say, “I discovered how reading a masterpiece can make you want to write one.” You’ve given countless examples in the book of places where there’s inspired word choice, brilliant sentences, telling literary gestures and dialogue. I wonder if you could offer up an example of a masterpiece that really made you want to write one.

The first time I read One Hundred Years of Solitude. Not that I could ever imagine writing anything that extraordinary myself. But it’s hard to read that without becoming just infected by the joy of storytelling. I mean, seeing what it’s like to create an entire world and have things come back around and characters appear and disappear and what you can do on the page. That was a real revelation for me.

Or reading Anna Karenina, in which on practically every page there’s something that you’ve noticed about character and the world or that you’ve seen someone do, and that you never thought anyone else had ever noticed before. And here’s this Russian nutcase who’s been dead all these years capturing it all perfectly.

You dropped out of a PhD program and essentially left the life of the academic for the life of a novelist/short-story-writer/journalist.

I’ve never looked back.

What made you choose the life of the writer over the life of the academic?

I don’t really feel that I had a choice. Graduate school was driving me quite literally insane. I wanted a different approach to the work. I just felt that the passion I felt as a reader was not being reflected by my professors and by my future colleagues. I don’t know what they were doing, but it wasn’t what I was doing. And I don’t know how they were reading, but it wasn’t the way I was reading. When I look at the list of papers presented at an MLA convention, I still get that same feeling of What are these people talking about? It was extremely alienating, because in theory we were all talking about the same (as they would say) “texts,” but I really, literally could not understand. I had never thought of myself as the stupidest person in the room, but suddenly that’s what I had become. Nothing anyone was saying made any particular sense to me. Which isn’t to say that I didn’t have great teachers. I did. The book is dedicated to three of them, one of whom was my teacher both in college and graduate school. But they certainly weren’t in the majority.

As a teacher, journalist, and writer, you’ve had your thumb on the pulse for some time now. Have you been struck by any recent trends in the literary world?

I will say one thing. For one reason or another, I get sent a lot of new books. I don’t know what they’re hoping—reviews or blurbs I guess. So I see a lot of what’s being published. And plenty of it is pretty dull. But quite a bit of it is actually really interesting. Every so often you hear these gloomy predictions about the death of the novel or the death of fiction and the end of literary culture, blah, blah, blah.  But, you know, my friend the novelist Richard Price said the novel the will be around at our funeral. And I think he’s right; it’s alive and well.

What are you reading these days?

Because I’m reviewing so much I often tend to read books on assignment more than for sheer pleasure, but let me look at my desk and see what’s on it.  Okay I’ll just tell you what’s on my desk. The Collected Works of Jane Bowles. A collection of essays by Janet Malcolm. The new book by Daniel Mendelson which I just reviewed called The Lost, about a search for his relatives lost in the holocaust. Huckleberry Finn. A book called Stuart: A Life Backwards, by Alexander Masters, which is a strange and terrific biography of a homeless person. That’s what’s on my desk. It’s a range. But one of the reasons I’m glad I wrote this book and I’m glad there’s the bibliography at the end is that whenever anyone asks you for a book recommendation or what you’re reading, everything just flies out of your mind; you just can’t think of a single book you’ve ever read.

That’s true.

You know that experience. So now at least I have this list and I can say, “Go look at the list. Don’t ask me. Read the list!”