Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Reading Like a Writer

I don't buy many books these days - partly because like most people I know I've run out of room in the flat, and I've about twenty sackfuls in the garage. But I couldn't resist this item in the London Review newsletter - not just  a book about writing but one that recommends learning to write from 'good' authors. Just what I need right now - reassurance that reading 'difficult' books has some validity. I've been struggling recently to write stories for women's magazines. A lifetime of reading nineteenth century novels hasn't helped. I've tried hard to write short sentences with simple  words set out in a fairly straightforward manner. It's been a good exercise.

Reading like a Writer by Francine Prose is a fascinating  book for any writer who's also a keen reader.  Chapters analyse models from mainly, but not exclusively, American works  using  a method called 'close reading'. The author says this approach was one she learned at college instead of the old way. This privileged  context, so biographical and historical details assumed more importance than the text itself. While I don't think one precludes the other, the approach is one I used  when I did my Eng Lit degree.

The book opens with a description of the author's method for teaching Creative Writing by close reading. The chapters that follow are headed : 'Words', Sentences', 'Paragraphs', 'Narration', 'Character', 'Dialogue', 'Details', 'Gesture', 'Learning from Chekhov','Reading for Courage', 'Books to be Read Immediately'.

I've read about three so far and am enthralled by the easy style and use of extracts from familiar writers, from  Jane Austen to Raymond Carver and from  Gustave Flaubert to Katherine Mansfield, taking in Chehov and Shakespeare along the way.

'Prose cautions readers to slow down and pay attention to words, the raw material out of which all literature is crafted, and reminds us that good writing comes out of good reading'.