Union Books, £12.99. Order for £11.69 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Reading Like a Writer, By Francine Prose
Boyd Tonkin is Senior Writer and a columnist at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Literary Editor at The Independent, and before that Social Policy Editor and then Books Editor at the New Statesman magazine. He has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes and has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize. In 2001, he re-founded the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for literature in translation, and serves on its judging panel every year.
Thursday 14 June 2012
As novelist and critic, American writer Francine Prose has always gloried in a robust wit and heretical spirit that set her at odds with the po-faced pieties of the US literary scene.
No surprise, then, that when she harvests her long experience as a teacher of creative writing, the book that results glitters with the same defiant individuality. Prose teaches her students to write fiction by teaching them to read fiction: as solid, old-fashioned practical critics, alert to every shade and nuance of language and structure as they scrutinise great writers at work.
Long before "creative writing" entered the academy, "writers learned by reading the work of their predecessors" – as Prose does here. She moves from the smallest building-blocks of diction – in the "inspired word choice" of Katherine Mansfield or The Great Gatsby – through the exquisitely wrought sentences of Virginia Woolf or Rebecca West. A connoisseur of fine prose, she insists that "the well-made sentence transcends time and genre". We ascend to the larger unit of the paragraph, which bears "the tell-tale traces" of an author's DNA, the pitfalls and benefits of first-, third- and second-person narration, the subtle arts of character, and the "sophisticated multi-tasking" of great dialogue as practised by Jane Austen or Henry Green.
Prose strides far and wide, within and beyond the English-language canon. Tolstoy, Turgenev and Isaac Babel yield precious insights. In one of several piquant miniature memoirs, she remembers the challenge of introducing breezy young Americans in Utah to the subversive take on character deployed by that "tormented German hypochondriac", Heinrich von Kleist.
No past master teaches Prose, and her readers, as much as Anton Chekhov. "Profound and beautiful", his short stories have evergreen wisdom to impart not only about literature, but life itself. "Keep your eyes open," he, and she, advise: "see clearly, think about what you see, ask yourself what it means." You hardly need to study creative writing to learn from Chekhov's X-ray vision – or, for that matter, from this sharp-eyed, high-spirited and wholly salutary book.
Game of Thrones
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 More than 11,000 Icelanders offer to house Syrian refugees to help European crisis
- 2 If these extraordinarily powerful images of a dead Syrian child washed up on a beach don't change Europe's attitude to refugees, what will?
- 3 Senior British politicians tell David Cameron: When dead children are being washed up on beaches – it's time to act
- 4 Make your voice heard: Sign The Independent's petition to welcome refugees
- 5 Refugee crisis: Aylan's life was full of fear - in death, he is part of 'humanity washed ashore'
The real reason Eddie Redmayne was cast as a trans woman in The Danish Girl
First Look at Bryan Cranston transformed into LBJ for HBO’s ‘All the Way’ film
Idris Elba is ‘too street’ to play 007, says James Bond author
This little boy loves books so much that he cries when his mother stops reading to him
Prog rock finally comes of age with launch of the first Official Progressive Chart
Climate change: 2015 will be the hottest year on record 'by a mile', experts say
Senior British politicians tell David Cameron: When dead children are being washed up on beaches – it's time to act
Jeremy Corbyn calls Osama bin Laden's killing a 'tragedy' - but was it taken out of context?
If these extraordinarily powerful images of a dead Syrian child washed up on a beach don't change Europe's attitude to refugees, what will?
If you're not already angry about the refugee crisis, here's a history lesson to remind you why you really should be
Theresa May says migrants should be banned from entering the UK unless they have jobs lined up