Let me confess that the amount of underlining and tabs sticking out of this book is embarrassing. I gobbled up Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and For Those Who Want to Write Them by Francine Prose. It’s not a how-to for readers or writers. It’s almost feels like Prose is telling us a story about her lifelong relationship with reading, stopping to recount passages that move her in one way or another. And it’s a tale that I wanted more of.
The book is divided up to focus on sections of word choice, sentence structure, composing paragraphs, narration choices, character, dialogue, and more that hone in focus on a specific type of magic achieved through each passage she selects. She breaks down what writers have done and why she believes it works in a way that is accessible and straightforward that I almost forget that I’m being taught to slow down and pay attention to the details (a skill that I had to put on the back burner in grad school). But what I think is important is that I didn’t always agree with her analysis – which is what she would want. What works for Prose may not necessarily work for me, but I can still stop and appreciate what the author has done and inch myself closer to their purpose and technique.
Up front, Prose makes no apologies for her belief that creative writing cannot be taught. But the premise of her book is simple: do the work. Writing comes with an assumption that it’s 90% talent and 10% time, but Prose shows us with example after example how important reading is to professional development as a writer. Repeatedly, she urges readers to show down as they read because authors’ choices in writing come from deliberation and it is up to us as readers to study why those choices were made and decide for ourselves why they do or do not work. “If the culture sets ups series of rules that the writer is instructed to observe, reading will show you how these rules have been ignored in the past, and the happy outcome. So let me repeat that, once more: literature not only breaks the rules, but makes us realize that there are none” (p. 250).
And I would add that breaking the rules produces beautiful works that leave readers in awe.