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Reading Like a Writer, By Francine Prose

 

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.

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