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A wise companion for any writer
on 13 June 2012
This book is a plea to slow down.
Francine Prose (I'll call her 'Francine' with apologies - there's an obvious problem with calling her 'Prose') is a novelist and she teaches creative writing. Her aim here is not to bottle her classwork but to offer a complementary course in close reading. A writing workshop, she feels, "can be useful. A good teacher can show you how to edit your work." And the right class can create a community "that will help and sustain you." But the best way to learn how to write is to read great books.
Slow reading, says Francine, helps us learn "the seemingly obvious but oddly underappreciated fact that language is the medium we use in much the same way a composer uses notes."
So this most definitely isn't a `how to' book. A manual, she says, usually tells you how *not* to write; in contrast, "reading a masterpiece can inspire us by showing us how a writer does something brilliantly."
In eight chapters, she shows us precisely that. Looking at words, paragraphs, narration, character, dialogue, details and gesture, she offers close readings of texts from a dizzyingly wide range of writers, many of them new to this reviewer.
If you're younger than me, you may find Francine's project old-fashioned. Close reading was born with the New Criticism favoured by her high school teacher; a mode of reading that fell seriously out of favour during the late 70s and 80s, "when literary academia split into warring camps of deconstructionists, Marxists, feminists and so forth". Francine remains resolutely unideological. Whatever rules or general advice she offers in her writing class, she finds that close reading undercuts with particular exceptions. "Literature," she says, "not only breaks the rules, but makes us realize that there *are none*."
If you find that a seriously uncomfortable truth - well, stay with her, because the best comes last.
Some of the readings, in truth, are closer than others. But throughout the book, Francine startles us with stunning insights. On narration: the question's not "third voice or first voice?"; instead, "the truly problematic question is: Who is listening?" On details: "If we want to write something memorable, we might want to pay attention to how and what we remember." On gesture: "One notices how rarely - almost never - Jane Austen uses physical gesture."
Her greatest hero - unsurprisingly, perhaps - is Chekhov, who wrote that "a writer must be as objective as a chemist", and that "it is time for writers to admit that nothing in this world makes sense."
No easy answers, then. Close reading is hard work - almost as hard as writing. But for Francine, it's also an exercise in freedom. "Reading," she says, "can give you the courage to resist all the pressures that our culture exerts on you to write in a certain way." If, like most people who try to write, you've "experienced not only the need for bravery but a failure of nerve," then this book will be a solace, a source of inspiration, and a boon companion.
I started this book sceptical; but I'll be returning to it on a regular basis.
A longer version of this review appears at: