Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.

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Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Prose: felicitous

Francine, that is. I just finished Reading like a Writer, a wonderful book even if you have no urge to pen anything longer than your grocery list.

Prose is a writer's writer, ably producing in numerous genres. In this latest she takes apart the mechanics of writing, beginning with words, building to sentences, dialogue, paragraphs, and concluding, aptly, with Chekov.

Though Prose employs numerous examples from other novels to make her point, it is her own writing that serves so ably. In writing a book about writing, she brings forth some terrific sentences. On reading your work aloud:

"A poet once told me he was reading a draft of a new poem aloud to himself when a thief broke into his Manhattan loft. Instantly surmising that he had entered the dwelling of a madman, the thief turned and ran without taking anything, and without harming the poet. So it may be that reading your work aloud will not only improve its quality but save your life in the process." (56)

On the individuality of each writer's paragraphing:

"...A similar flash of lightning, a similar rhythm change and shift in perspective, but now all of it has migrated....It's similar, but not the same, because as Nero Wolfe told us (in a previous quotation) paragraphing is as particular, as individual to each writer, as the fingerprint at the crime scene, as that telltale trace of DNA." (84)

Prose childes the monolith of lit crit that has wrecked the contemporary study of literature, noting her good fortune at having a high school English teacher schooled in New Criticism--reading what was written rather than into the author's background or context. She goes on to say the critical melee of Marxists, deconstructionists, and feminists, with their differing interpretations of "text", drove her out of grad school. I can relate. I nearly dropped out of my Master's program for the same reasons.

Reading Like a Writer is in general an upbeat work, but has its sobering moments--the death of Babel, her anecdote about a storyteller friend who is clearly Spalding Gray, a young writer whose interest in beautiful sentences is derided by his agent.

Prose argues the need for beautiful sentences, stating "a well-made sentence trancends time and genre." (36) Indeed, it does.

A few of my favorites sentences:

"We tell ourselves stories in order to live." Joan Didion, the White Album

"There are many ways to get to Mount Zion Cemetary." Harold Robbins, A Stone for Danny Fisher (Heartbreaking--Robbins was a great writer before he started churning out crap.)

"Then there was the bad weather. It would come in one day when the fall was over. We would have to shut the windows in the night against the rain and the cold wind would strip the leaves from the trees in the Place Contrescarpe." More than once sentence from Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast.

The book closes with a paen to Chekov, whose stories are indispensable in getting Prose through a difficult period of her life compounded by a teaching position involving an unpleasant commute. Reading Chekov on the bus, "A sense of comfort came over me, as if in in those thirty minutes I myself had been taking up in a spaceship and shown the whole world, a world full of sorrows, both different and very much like my own, and also a world full of promise." (234)

What more could we ask of literature?

Francine Prose: Reading Like a Writer. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2006.

Works cited:

Joan Didion: The White Album. New York: The Noonday Press. 1979.

Ernest Hemingway: A Moveable Feast. New York: Scribners. 1964.

Harold Robbins: A Stone for Danny Fisher. New York: Pocket Books, 1952

Authors, Books, Francine Prose, Book Review

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