Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them (Anglais) Broché – 10 avril 2007
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Revue de presse
“Witty...Insightful.” (Washington Post Book World)
“a jewel of a companion…engrossing...and...daringly insightful.” (Los Angeles Times)
“The passages are…subtle and brilliant in their capture of human complexity…Prose is…a skilled…analyst of what makes them so.” (San Francisco Chronicle)
“Reading Like A Writer is different from the rest of the pack…[Prose’s] wise book serves as an ispirational reminder.” (Washington Times)
“Sensible, valuable and highly readable, Reading Like a Writer deserves perusal both in and out of the classroom.” (Kansas City Star)
“Celebrates the pleasures of close reading and explores the power of well-wrought language…refreshing” (Time Out New York)
“An absolutely necessary addition to the personal library of anyone who is a writer or dreams of writing.” (National Public Radio)
“Makes a case for the rewards of reading.” (Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel)
“Prose knows when to be funny, how to wield examples, and when to stop.” (More magazine)
“Readable and illuminating…few…advice volumes offer as much insight into writing as you will find in Francine Prose’s latest book” (Capital Times)
“Prose’s guide to reading and writing belongs on every writer’s bookshelf alongside E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel.” (Publishers Weekly (starred review))
Présentation de l'éditeur
Long before there were creative-writing workshops and degrees, how did aspiring writers learn to write? By reading the work of their predecessors and contemporaries, says Francine Prose.
In Reading Like a Writer, Prose invites you to sit by her side and take a guided tour of the tools and the tricks of the masters. She reads the work of the very best writers—Dostoyevsky, Flaubert, Kafka, Austen, Dickens, Woolf, Chekhov—and discovers why their work has endured. She takes pleasure in the long and magnificent sentences of Philip Roth and the breathtaking paragraphs of Isaac Babel; she is deeply moved by the brilliant characterization in George Eliot's Middlemarch. She looks to John Le Carré for a lesson in how to advance plot through dialogue, to Flannery O'Connor for the cunning use of the telling detail, and to James Joyce and Katherine Mansfield for clever examples of how to employ gesture to create character. She cautions readers to slow down and pay attention to words, the raw material out of which literature is crafted.
Written with passion, humor, and wisdom, Reading Like a Writer will inspire readers to return to literature with a fresh eye and an eager heart.
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Prose discusses the basics, including the use of the exact word, sentence building, paragraphing, point of view, character, and dialogue. Close reading, she asserts, enables us to understand not only what the writer is stating, but also what he is implying. The subtext is often as important, if not more important, than the text itself. Throughout "Reading Like a Writer" are excerpts, some brief, some lengthy, from a variety of sources, followed by Prose's witty, insightful, and informative commentary. Why does the writer choose one particular word or phrase rather than another? How do the seemingly minor details and gestures in a scene sometimes convey more information than the characters' statements?
"Reading Like a Writer" is not a handbook or a manual. It is a love letter to the mysterious alchemy, the magic that occurs when a reader encounters a book, poem, or story that not only entertains him, but also moves and transforms him. Francine Prose's favorite writers may not be our favorites, but all readers who love literature will appreciate her enthusiasm and respect for the written word. Her suggestions about how to read more effectively are useful not just for budding writers but for anyone who would like to come away from a book with a deeper appreciation of the author's craft. As Prose says, "Reading this way requires a certain amount of stamina, concentration, and patience."" The reward for all of this effort lies in "the excitement of approaching, as nearly as you can hope to come, the hand and mind of the artist."
As you advance through the chapters you will find examples covering the fundamentals of writing, including aspects related to narrative, plot development, characters creation, as well as the basics of sentence and paragraph structure.
Even if you have no intention at all of becoming a writer you will love this book, since it also teaches us how to have a better appreciation of what we read.
What I expected was a series of examples with analysis of what made them work or not work. There were far fewer examples than I expected, the analysis was typically slight, and there was too much extraneous material.
For example, in the chapter on "Sentences", too much of the commentary on the examples was simply effusive praise of the sentence's author. I strongly disagreed with Prose's assessment of roughly a third of the sentences cited, but she didn't provide enough analysis for me to understand her point of view (declarations of something as great is not an argument).
In the chapter on "Paragraphs", the author starts with an example from Babel's "Crossing into Poland." At first I thought it strange to be using a translated work as an example, but then she presented another translation as a counterpoint. I then thought "What a brilliant way to get examples of the effects of the differences in choices by two professional writers." However, she failed to effectively follow through. Also, I differed with her on the analysis of the passage in question: "... the highroad ... built ... upon the bones of peasants." Her analysis was that it "introduced some element of unease." My analysis was that it -- the thought pattern and jargon -- simply identified the protagonist as a Marxist-Leninist (In discussing the related "My First Goose", Prose identifies the protagonist as a follower of Lenin).
In the next portion of "Paragraphs", Prose rambles about the Rex Stout mystery "Plot It Yourself" that hinges on how the paragraph choices were made in three documents. She give less specific insight than you would find in a brief introduction to composition, and essentially punts the issue, saying it is something that has significant impact, but that each writer must develop their own ear for it.
The first part of the chapter on "Character" focuses on von Kleist's novella "The Marquise of O-." It present a few passages which are useful illustrations. However, she spends inordinate time on the plot, far beyond what is needed - or useful - to appreciate those passages. I found the disorganized repeated rehashing of the plot elements to be annoying. This might not have been so bad if she hadn't started the chapter with a digression on one college class where she had assigned the novella.
Each of the chapters had similar problems. This was a book that I couldn't help putting down, but because of the many positive reviews, I kept picking it back up. I didn't get to the end of most of the chapters: When I found I couldn't tolerate anymore of a chapter, I skipped to the beginning of the next one to see if it was any better.
Review of Reviews: When you read the other reviews, ask yourself "Is the reviewer praising the concept of the book, or its implementation?" Is the reviewer talking about being "inspired" - or "motivated" - to learn from reading more closely, or has s/he actually learned an appropriate amount from this book (of 268 pages). That is, is the reviewer responding to the author's gushing about great writing and her teaching of literature, or to the book providing useful insight on how to be a better reader and/or writer?
BACKGROUND / CONTEXT of my review: By profession, I am a senior engineer/scientist and have done extensive technical writing, but I have also done extensive advocacy writing - marketing (advocacy of products and services) and political (advocacy of ideas).
I am a staunch believer in "close reading" as a way to *learn* better writing, and encourage it by involving all members of my teams in the rewriting/editing process (but without taking it anywhere near the extent that occurs in literary criticism). Less experienced writers are not just given advice on improving their documents, but are expected to provide suggestions on improving documents written by better writers.
So what to put in the new improved version? Besides an index, start with losing the references that were written before, say, 1960. It's obvious Ms. Prose loves the classics. So do I. Those writers were giants in their day. But it would be career suicide to try to write like them today, especially the overfed prose of the British writers. Today's writers have XBox, reality shows, and cellphone-texting standing by ready to steal the reader with the flick of a switch. Today's writers need to grab the reader quickly and not let go. That can't be done with 181-word sentences. This is the age of the short attention span. It is no accident that Harold Bloom has little regard for J.K. Rowling. Neither is it an accident that all the world is reading Rowling's work.
How to account for this phenomenon? Though Ms. Prose and I are nearly the same age, she has spent her life in literature while I spent mine first as an Army officer and later as an engineer. I've only been at this reading/writing game for about five years. Before you scoff, engineering and writing are more alike than they are different. Each is governed by a set of laws--grammar for writing, formulas for engineering. But beyond that there is a great deal of room for artistry, creativity, or, as we say in engineering, elegance. Were this not so, all bridges would either look alike or fall down.
Growing up in the world of words I can easily see how Ms. Prose fell in love with Words, Sentences and Paragraphs. She's become a virtuoso, rather like one of those violinists who delight in playing things that are hard to play whether or not they are nice to listen to. As for myself, I'm a Signal-to-Noise-Ratio kinda guy. In any given sentence, some words contribute to signal (meaning), while others contribute to noise. As I read Ms. Prose's windier sample passages, I observed two things: first I had to read them several times to grok their meaning--I had to grope for the subject-verb-object and was tempted to highlight them after I found them. Second, I never did settle into the rhythm of the words that she insisted was there. After five years, I can write a pretty good sentence, clever even. However, I suspect Ms. Prose and I go about it in very different ways and have very different outcomes. I think I'll pick up a copy of "Blue Angel" to see if I'm right.
Some other observations:
--Her chapters started out with decreasing granularity--words, sentences, paragraphs. I would have liked her to extend that progression to scenes and chapters as well. I suspect the sheer bulk prohibited that in this edition.
--A chapter I would have liked to have seen would have been one on openers. Every sentence has a mission--to get you to read the next sentence. Any sentence that fails in that mission leaves a long string of unrequited sentences. Hence, the nearer the failure occurs to the beginning of the book, the greater the damage. She did comment on a few people's openers, but I believe separate billing for openers would have been justified.
--I got a chuckle out of her closing section, Books to Be Read Immediately. She just got done convincing me to read more slowly, one word at a time. BTW--engineers do that by nature. Now she presents me with a single-spaced list of books that goes on for five pages. I had been wondering what I was going to do for the next twenty years--now I know.
--She commented that the joy of writing for her and many other writers comes from crafting sentences. I will admit that is one of the more fun parts of writing, but that is not why I write. I write to tell stories. Sentences--no matter how finely crafted--are only a means to that end. Beyond telling stories, I have the hidden agenda of changing people's attitudes--something you can only do with good fiction. I like to say that if you intend to inform the already convinced, write non-fiction. But if you would change people's attitudes, you must write fiction. Examples: Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin" (led to the Civil War), or Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" (led to the civil rights movement). You can write essay after essay on why it's wrong to be a racist but you will not change one racist mind. They do not respond to facts and logic. But let them live in a racist world, let them walk a mile in racist shoes, as you can only do in fiction--ah, now you may find a chink in their armor. Though racism is not my target, changing people's attitudes is why I write.
--Ejner Fulsang, author of "A Knavish Piece of Work", Aarhus Publishing, 2006
She not only encourages and explains the reading of the classics, Prose also offers a diet rich in vignettes from an egalitarian menu of authors. She is like a chef who tells you to eat great food, teaches you how to cook five-star meals, and then takes you to a five-star restaurant to become a connoisseur.
As the subtitle suggests, two primary audiences will enjoy "Reading Like a Writer." Anyone who loves books, will glean insights into great books and how to enjoy them. Anyone who wants to write books, will learn how to write better--more creatively, powerfully, and yet still personally.
Reviewer: Bob Kellemen, Ph.D., is the author of "Soul Physicians," "Spiritual Friends," and "Beyond the Suffering: Embracing the Legacy of African American Soul Care and Spiritual Direction."