“Can creative writing be taught?”
It’s a question that many aspiring writers have asked, and this is the question that Francine Prose addresses in her book, “Reading Like a Writer.”
Prose, from the very beginning, answers a resounding “no” to that question. But Prose still provides hope in her book. Prose’s book is not a step-by-step guide to amazing writing, but a portal to a different way of looking at literature. She recognizes the classes not as old dusty masterworks, but as live examples of good writing that have stood the test of time.
“Reading Like a Writer” is divided into chapters devoted to aspects in a work of fiction, from the small things like words and sentences, to major driving ones like character and plot. Each chapter follows a similar scheme. Prose introduces a text, and then devotes several paragraphs analyzing it, depending on the topic of the chapter. Her analysis is like a surgeon’s scalpel, picking at the fine details of a passage. The depth of her explanations is sometimes too deep, and the reader may find the tone didactic at times, but nonetheless, Prose’s honest respect for good literature makes this book like an informative lecture from a teacher who clearly shows deep interest in what she is teaching. There is a clear flow of energy that the reader can feel through her literary discussions.
“Reading Like a Writer” features a wide variety of books. Some texts are from as far back as the 18th century, such as Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice,” and some from current times, such as Jonathan Franzen’s “The Corrections.” Some writers are big names like Virginia Woolf, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Charles Dickens, and some are more obscure like Richard Yates and Henry Green. Prose shows the wealth that all literature has by analyzing the elements of works of all genres of fiction, from drama to horror, from historical fiction to mystery. There is even a list of must-read books for the reader to practice the keen discernment that Prose preaches.
Prose does not fail to entertain her readers. The wealth of humorous anecdotes from both literary history and from her own life as a reader, writer and teacher provide relief from the long stretches of explaining and analyzing. Her little personal asides are humorously relatable to all readers, which humanizes the book rather than make it a long, distanced lecture. It is almost as if Prose is talking to her reader as a friend, as a mentor.
In “Reading Like a Writer,” Prose shows her readers how reading widely and deeply can help aspiring writers find their voices. Her book not only gives insight into how to read, but also, more importantly, on how to love reading. And she uses literature to show the potential and variety of excellent writing. Prose teaches her readers that creative writing cannot be taught because it is impossible to set a single standard of quality to measure all literature. Prose ultimately teaches her reader that “literature is an endless source of courage and confirmation”. “Reading like a Writer” is an inspiring and encouraging book, one that will change how people see literature. Even for people who are not interested in creative writing, this book will open people’s eyes to the subtleties and diversity of good writing and will give people new-found respect for the classics.