Close Reading | Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose | Karen Kao


Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose

This book was recommended to me by the director of a creative writing program here in Amsterdam. She thought it might help me reacquaint myself with the various craft terms I’d need to know when I start teaching in the spring. Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose turned out to be so much more. As a reader, it crystallized for me the reason I love books.  As a writer, it offered real life tips. And as a wannabe teacher, it gives me the courage to think I’ll make it someday.

on reading

For many of us, reading has become a chore. We skim through reports, emails, the news feed hoping to digest as much information as quickly as we can. And even when we read for pleasure, we might skip pages and paragraphs to cut to the chase, find out whodunit, answer the who-what-when questions in our mind.

But when we were kids, reading was different. As Francine Prose reminds us: 

"We all begin as close readers. Even before we learn to read, the process of being read aloud to, and of listening, is one in which we are taking in one word after another, one phrase at a time."

As adults, we have forgotten our ability to read for pleasure. Worse yet, we feel the need to form an opinion before we’ve come to the end of the book. Literature students in particular seem programmed to judge: 

"They had been encouraged to form strong, critical, and often negative opinions of geniuses who had been read with delight for centuries before they were born. They had been instructed to prosecute or defend these authors, as if in a court of law, on charges having to do with the writers’ origins, their racial, cultural, and class backgrounds."

I remember reading Moby Dick in one haul, sitting on the floor of my new and utterly unfurnished apartment. When it got too dark to read inside, I went to the pool and finished Melville’s tale by moonlight.

Prose gives a list of Books to Read Immediately. I’m ashamed to say that I’ve only read half. And overjoyed, too, because think of all the fun I’ll have reading these classics. I’ve just exploded my pile of books to read.

on writing

If close reading is a way to intensify the pleasure books can bring, then it can also help writers learn to write. If for no other reason than to remind us "how many rooms there are in the house of art."

As a proponent of close reading, Prose organizes her thoughts by Words, Sentences and Paragraphs. As luck would have it, I was mid-way the second draft of my novel manuscript when I learned the word paragraphing. I didn’t know it was a verb or that you could end a paragraph anywhere other than its logical conclusion.

Prose quotes Isaac Babel on the topic: 

"A new paragraph is a wonderful thing. It lets you quietly change the rhythm, and it can be like a flash of lightning that shows the same landscape from a different aspect."

There are so many choices out there, word by word, line, paragraph and break. Every story or chapter or article I read now, I’m thinking about the craft decisions behind each word, rather than "what the author’s mother might have thought when she read them."

It would be freeing for me if I could also forget about whether my readers will care about my characters. For, as Prose asks, "what does care mean, exactly? Too often I’m afraid, it’s being used as a synonym for identify"

Rather than write fiction with characters who are likable, Prose encourages writers to create characters who are interesting. 

"Masterpieces survive in which all that’s expected of us is that we be interested in the characters, engaged by their fates, intrigued by their complexities, curious about what will happen to them next."

Writers in search of these encouraging words can find them all in the chapter appropriately entitled Reading for Courage.

on teaching

The chapter entitled Learning from Chekhov is a lesson in humility. Prose writes of an unhappy period in her life when she had to commute two and a half hours to her teaching job. Much of that commute was spent waiting at the New Rochelle Trailways Station. She whiled away the time reading Chekhov and discovering with each story that the truisms she had announced in class were completely wrong.

This, then, is her advice to aspiring writers: 

"Read Chekhov, read the stories straight through. Admit that you understand nothing of life, nothing of what you see. Then go out and look at the world."

If that’s what it takes to become a writer, what is the role of a teacher of creative writing? Can creative writing be taught at all? Now I know the answer.

The best writing teachers I’ve had (Sam Chang, Yiyun Li, Charles Wright) could cite off the top of their heads authors, titles even whole passages of literature to illustrate any teaching point they needed to make. It was clear to me that they had read all the books ever written or, at the very least, all the good ones. So that’s the task ahead of me because I don’t just want to teach. I want to be a great teacher.


First, I need to absorb all those words before I can attempt to transform them into insight that I can summon up at will. I need to get cracking.

Lest I should despair at the challenge, Isaac Babel, once again, comes to the rescue. In this quote (courtesy of Prose), he talks about the hard work of revision. But his words seem equally appropriate to that other labor of love called teaching. 

"I work like a pack mule, but it’s my own choice. I’m like a galley slave who’s chained for life to his oar but who loves the oar."

Or maybe the trick to becoming a great teacher involves taking the bus. Lydia Davis (talk about paragraphing!) has a short story called The Letter to the Foundation. It’s about a professor of writing who is deeply unhappy about many things in her life, including her bus commute to work. But that professor spends her time on the bus just like Prose did: reading books very closely.


This book review was originally published by Karen Kao on her website Shanghai Noir.


Reb MacRath said…
I discovered this classic years ago and still think it's one of the greatest.
Peter Leyland said…
Enjoyed reading this Karen. Lots of suggestions and ideas for a fledgling reader/writer. Thank you
Griselda Heppel said…
This book sounds wonderful. I couldn't help rejoicing in the nominative determinism that a book about writing should be by someone called Prose. Oh my goodness, from the sentences you quote, she writes a lot of sense. It hadn't occurred to me before that people might narrow down the idea of caring about a novel's characters to whether or not they identify with them. Aargh! So no Macbeth, Oedipus Rex, Vanity Fair, Wuthering Heights, The Custom of the Country, or anything by Barbara Pym (whose books I adore)... as well as a myriad more recent ones. So much richness in character creation jettisoned.

Your paragraphing discussion reminded me of a story Barbara Cartland told about how she formed her writing style. Surprised at how quickly her maid (sorry, this is Barbara Cartland after all) was turning the pages of a book, she asked why, to be told 'Oh, I never read more than the first line or two of a paragraph.' Horrified at the thought that the readership she hoped to wow would miss her deathless prose, Cartland determined that no paragraph of hers should ever exceed a couple of lines. The rest is, er, history.
Kirsten Bett said…
Thanks for this blog Karen, another good one for my to read list. I also like the fact you found the book in Amsterdam, are you based in the Netherlands too? I live in Leeuwarden.

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