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Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them

Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them

Written by Francine Prose

Narrated by Nanette Savard


Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them

Written by Francine Prose

Narrated by Nanette Savard

ratings:
3/5 (617 ratings)
Length:
9 hours
Publisher:
Released:
Apr 10, 2007
ISBN:
9780061287374
Format:
Audiobook

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Editor's Note

A great teacher…

Covering gesture, characterization, narration, and dialogue, Prose shows you how to get the most out of your reading — and how to apply those lessons to that manuscript shoved in the back of your desk drawer.

Description

In her entertaining and edifying New York Times bestseller, acclaimed author Francine Prose invites you to sit by her side and take a guided tour of the tools and the tricks of the masters and discover why their work has endured. Written with passion, humor, and wisdom, Reading Like a Writer will inspire readers to return to literature with a fresh eye and an eager heart-to take pleasure in the long and magnificent sentences of Philip Roth and the breathtaking paragraphs of Isaac Babel; to look to John Le Carré for a lesson in how to advance plot through dialogue, and to Flannery O'Connor for the cunning use of the telling detail. And, most importantly, she cautions readers to slow down and pay attention to words, the raw material out of which all literature is crafted.

Publisher:
Released:
Apr 10, 2007
ISBN:
9780061287374
Format:
Audiobook

Also available as...

Also available as ebookEbook

About the author

Francine Prose is the author of twenty-one works of fiction including, the highly acclaimed Mister Monkey; the New York Times bestseller Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932; A Changed Man, which won the Dayton Literary Peace Prize; and Blue Angel, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. Her works of nonfiction include the highly praised Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife, and the New York Times bestseller Reading Like a Writer, which has become a classic. The recipient of numerous grants and honors, including a Guggenheim and a Fulbright, a Director’s Fellow at the Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, Prose is a former president of PEN American Center, and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She is a Distinguished Writer in Residence at Bard College.


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What people think about Reading Like a Writer

3.1
617 ratings / 58 Reviews
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Reader reviews

  • (5/5)
    This was an amazing guide to reading more critically, expansively, delicately, and memorably. I was very impressed by this book. There were countless examples of what Prose denoted and her explanations were extremely insightful and well-thought out. She is obviously quite talented at writing and I almost felt that the entire book served as a course in literature. This one is not to be missed for aspiring writers, or people who wish to read literature more clearly and with more cognizance.5 stars- full marks!
  • (4/5)
    Great excerpts. This left me wanting to read more, and with a list of books to move to the top of the pile.

    Mission accomplished, I'd say.
  • (5/5)
    This is a book where as soon as I got to the end I wanted to go straight back to the beginning again. It's no use borrowing it from the library and giving it back (says she who's done just that); this is a book that you need to own, to read and re-read over and over and over again, and to cover with pencil notes in the margin and copious underlining.This book is so good IT NEEDS CAPITAL SHOUTY LETTERS. It's a phenomenal read, whether you're a wannabe writer or simply an avid reader who's interested in learning more about what makes a great book great. Examining all aspects of writing from words to narration to dialogue and gestures, Prose ultimately concludes that there are no fixed rules to great writing, but very different, well-executed strategies and observances which we can learn best through quality reading.For example, we learn how Heinrich von Kleist used little or no physical descriptions of his characters in his writing, yet they leap vividly in our imagination. He defines his characters by their actions, whereas Jane Austen by contrast defines hers through their thinking. Two very different writing strategies, both extremely effective.I warn you that this book, should you choose to read it, will do your wish list no good at all. Many, many pieces of narrative from a wide variety of amazing authors are used to exemplify the various writing points being made, and they were all amazing. I was disappointed that I didn't get to read on to the next part of the story with all of them, and it was a fantastic introduction to many authors I hadn't heard of before, as well as other greats which I just haven't got to yet.If you write fiction, this book needs to be within grabbing distance for your next bout of writer's block.5 stars - meticulously researched and well explained, you'll read in a whole new way after reading this book.
  • (5/5)
    "Too often students are being taught to read as if literature were some kind of ethics class or civics class--or worse, some kind of self-help manual. In fact, the important thing is the way the writer uses the language."Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer guides us in how to get the most out of what we read. Each chapter focuses on a particular element of writing. Chapter 2, for example, covers "words":"Every page was once a blank page, just as every word that appears on it now was not always there, but instead reflects the final result of countless large and small deliberations. All the elements of good writing depend on the writer's skill in choosing one word instead of another."The next chapter covers "sentences":"....sentences like Woolf's or Kliest's, like butterflies gliding from flower to flower, or those quick uppercuts like Chandler's, sentences like a poke in the ribs, or the rapid-fire sentences of Stanley Elkin or Philip Roth. But there are also wonderful sentences that take the quickest, simplest, clearest route from point A to point B."Additional chapters analyze "paragraphs," "narration," "character," dialogue," "details," and "gesture." There's also a chapter devoted to Chekov.Prose uses examples from dozens of stories, novels, poetry or prose, from a myriad of writers, to illustrate her points. I was impressed by the depth of her observations--from what we can glean from a simple gesture the author notes, to choices about the length of the author's paragraphs. Her commentary shows just how much lies beneath and between the words an author uses. I'm embarrassed to admit how much would have eluded me as a reader of many of the samples without her guidance. I'm planning to emulate her in my future reading.This book is also sure to add to your TBR list from the many authors and works Prose discusses. At the very least, I'm planning to add the 13 volumes of Chekov's complete stories to my wish list.
  • (5/5)
    Excellent book on how to read and write a book
  • (3/5)
    more a memoir than a book on writingworth reading only after you "shared" the same readings that the author lists within a) an appendix b) the book itselfotherwise, it is just rambling and asking you to take for granted what the author decided to be relevant: a faith-based reading :)
  • (4/5)
    It's certainly very beautifully written, and Prose has a lot of good advice and examples. Sometimes she gets tiresome, especially when she starts quoting extremely long passages or goes on and on about Chekhov. But other than that, she's pretty cool. And her advice IS good.
  • (5/5)
    "Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them" really was eye-opening for me. I've been a reader practically all my life. The family story goes that I taught myself, but that was too long ago for me to remember how that happened or if it's true. But, like most of us, our education emphasized first *how* to read and memorizing new vocabulary words, then later unfortunately teachers dutifully discussing "classics" without much enthusiasm. In college, I was a science major so I missed out on classes that discussed great literature or classes on writing. One of my biggest regrets in life, really. Especially when I remember that as a kid I wanted to be "an author" when I grew up. Author Francine Prose has helped make up for this void that I, and others, have experienced. She emphasizes being a careful, and slower, reader so as to fully appreciate nuanced meanings. Of course, not all books (i.e. Harlequin romances) require, or need, such close reading, and some books are intended to be true page-turners -- but Prose feels that reading with care makes for a better reader. I myself am guilty of being a fast reader, and I am sure that this trait has made it difficult for me to appreciate several good books over the years that I've tried to approach them. Prose includes several excerpts and an intensive reading list (in the back of the book), and discusses different components of story, in chapters such as "Words", "Character", "Dialogue", "Details". These chapters are for readers and writers, both; they do not make one or the other audience feel left out. She also includes a chapter on Chekhov -- obviously, she is a great fan of him and other Russian writers such as Tolstoy and Nabokov. She even decries graduate students who have never read Dostoyevsky. Her thinking is that if one wants to be a good writer, one must read truly good writers as well, and understand what it is that makes them great. This advice seems to be obvious, actually; but I do agree that not all writers are good or wide-ranging readers. Prose concludes "If we wanted to grow roses, we would want to visit rose gardens and try to see them the way that a rose gardener would" (p. 268). That final sentence summarizes very well her purpose of this book. My edition has a very good section at the end that includes a conversation (Q and A) with Francine Prose. I enjoyed that a great deal, also.There is no index, which is disappointing -- if one wants to recall a certain work or author discussed, it can't be looked up. One has to thumb through the book instead.
  • (4/5)
    Reading Like a Writer is a quite enjoyable read, chock full of good advice and even better examples. I appreciated Prose's distaste for universal rules and principles, and her "show don't tell" method of demonstrating what makes for good writing. All in all, this book just made me feel excited to read more, and made me feel equipped to appreciate what I read more deeply. So I guess it achieved its aim fairly well.I did wish, however, that Prose also included some examples of writing gone wrong, alongside her countless examples of writing done well. Admittedly, she is explicit about wanting to avoid this (saying that aspiring writers get enough negative criticism as it is in workshops), but it seemed to me that she could've made some of her points more effectively (or that I would've understood them better, at least) with the aid of some contrastive evidence.Still, this book is a stirring testament to what good writing can be and accomplish. (Plus, it's a goldmine of recommended reading.) Though probably not a book that every passionate reader need own, it is at least a book that every passionate should borrow and eventually read.
  • (4/5)
    I was enjoying this, but then I got stalled, not because it wasn't good (because I think it was quite good), but probably because it's not a library book and there's no time pressure to finish it. Also, there were so many great excerpts that I was adding books to my to-read shelf about every other page; I'm not reading fast enough for that level of growth in my TBR list.

    I'll come back to this book eventually and give it a full review. For now, I think after a year and three months, it's time to move this one from my currently-reading shelf.
  • (4/5)
    Good introduction to the subject and other unfamiliar authors.
  • (3/5)

    1 person found this helpful

    An interesting read that reminded me why I didn't pursue English Lit beyond A-level. A little bit like physics, whilst I'm capable, I don't particularly enjoy it. Unlike physics, I firmly believe that lit crit / appreciation is often subjective - Prose's examples did nothing to dissuade me of this. I'm not a huge fan of Literature with a capital L - I enjoy storytelling - and I do believe good writing can be found outside its hallowed halls. I would have enjoyed this book more without the whiff of snobbery (at one point a work is 'at risk' of appearing to be magical realism - how awful for it - rather than a Work of Art). And for my sins, I have no intention of reading Chekhov.However, Prose is an engaging writer and her passion for literature is infectious. Her basic points are sensible and well-made for readers seeking to get under the skin of their books and for writers aspiring to make their words work a little harder - even if, as she is at pains to point out in the closing chapter, great literature largely shows us that all rules are made to be broken as long as you're good enough to get away with it.

    1 person found this helpful

  • (3/5)
    For those who aspire to write fiction, Francine Prose offers insights into writing styles and devices used by classic authors as well as some modern ones. Some of the quoted passages went on and on. It offers little in the way of advice for those whose writing interest lies in non-fiction. Perhaps the best feature of the book is the bibliography of what you should read now.
  • (1/5)
    Head-shakingly bad.
  • (3/5)
    I wasn’t really a fan of this, even though I can see that it’s likely going to be beneficial to many. The vast majority of stories and novels that Prose is recommending for worship seem not that interesting to me. I feel that there were too many male authors mentioned, and also I don’t enjoy short stories very much so it’s unlikely I’ll do any follow up on those.I do heartily agree with the premise that of course writers should be readers first, but I have a problem with talking about “the greats” versus just great reads; I think writers can also get a ton out of genre fiction and not just the (what appears to me) pretentious stuff. Also the Chekhov hard on was annoying.Ok so I just did math based on the “read these now” list at the back of the book, and less than 19% (18.6) were written by women. I’m taking another half star just because a woman should know better.
  • (4/5)
    A guide to stealing useful ideas from the Great and the Good, assembled by Francine Prose, who as well as being a novelist is a long-serving stalwart of the American "Creative Writing" industry — even though she admits to doubts as to whether you can, or should, teach creative writing. That aside, Prose obviously is a good teacher, and like many good teachers of literature, she's at her best when she's taking a text apart and showing you what is special about it. The discussions of general principles might across as rather generic and predictable, but the book comes alive when she is talking about specific examples. There are detailed chapters on most of the main building-blocks of fiction: words, sentences, paragraphs, characters, dialogue, details, and gesture. With, each time, a range of examples from contemporary writers as well as from the giants of the (US) academic canon to show the effect of the choices writers make in these areas. The book ends with a chapter dedicated to Chekhov's short stories, and another on the importance of courage (by which she means intelligent rule-breaking) in literature, and of course we aren't allowed to leave the classroom without a copy of her list of required reading. Judging by the 20-30% of this that is already familiar territory to me, I should think it's worth pursuing other names on the list as well. But I'm sure no reader of this book would ever have time to read everything on the list, if they were starting from zero!Obviously, there are topics and writers she doesn't cover: although she reminds us that rules are there to be broken, the focus is on the sort of mainstream fiction that is expected from Creative Writing students in US colleges, so there won't be much there for anyone who wants to explore the specific opportunities and restrictions of genre fiction. Nor does she deal with writing from outside the US and the most important bits of the dominant European traditions (France from Balzac to Proust, Germany from Kleist to Mann, Russia from Turgenev to Chekhov, Britain from the Brontës to Henry Green). But to talk about the narrowness of her examples is to miss the point: she wants to show us what we can find in a text if we take the trouble to ask the kind of questions she does about how a particular passage achieves its effect on the reader, and what we can steal from that to use in our own work. The book made me re-read one of the pieces she discusses in some detail, Kleist's novella Die Marquise von O, which I thought I knew quite well, but I found myself noticing things in it that I hadn't seen before, so the technique obviously works, at least in the short term! It's just a pity that a book which spends so much time showing us how to spot clichés and eliminate them from our work, and how to persuade publishers to allow us to break rules, ends up with the most clichéd cover design it's possible to have on a book-about-books. There must have been someone once who was the first person to do a cover design based on book-spines, but it certainly wasn't within the last forty or fifty years...
  • (4/5)
    Rush, rush, rush. When it comes to reading and the enjoyment of literature, the maxim we're taught is to read more and to read faster. Rejecting that rushed approach, Francine Prose in Reading Like a Writer argues that it's better to slow down and pay attention. To linger and savor, not just mindlessly consume.I read a lot and I'll be the first to admit that sometimes the only way to read the massive amount of new literary work being published every month, the classics on my bucket list, and the literary darlings from previous years is to read fast. But I try to make amends. If I've read too quickly, I'll often re-read. Favorites get read a few times. There are even some books I'll re-read every year religiously (why buy books if not to re-read them and enjoy them again and again?). Usually I'll find that I gain some new insight with each re-reading. Or that life experience and age filters it differently; something that moved me in a certain way at twenty-two moves me in another way in my mid-thirties. But I try not to skim because even judicious skimming ultimately makes the reading experience a hollow one. Like stuffing your face at the buffet bar and not really tasting anything.Prose warns against skimming and rightfully so. “Skimming will not allow you to extract one fraction of what a writer’s words can teach us about how to use the language.” Very true. (Um, so why did our professors in college assign massive, difficult tomes to be read in a week's time? Skimming was, ironically, a survival skill we learned as English undergrads.) As fiction readers, our interface with the books we read is mainly through the plot (what happens) and through the characters (who's involved), but we often miss the more subtle cues of storytelling by glossing over the words, sentences, and paragraphs. Bottom-line, you miss a lot by reading quickly or not reading mindfully. Because even if you're just in it for the story, Prose's point is that the story—all the psychological truths and crucial revelations—also exists in the microcosms: the words used, the sentence structure, or the gestures of the characters as they speak. The story is in the details.We forget that writers often labor painstakingly over a sentence or paragraph for days. Books are the result of multiple drafts. Good writing is never accidental; it's earnestly deliberate. There are effects and subtexts the writer wants to convey—even if we're not consciously aware of them—through the way something is written. In other words, it's not just what is said or written but *how*. Prose advocates for this kind of scrutiny and close reading. Books deserve more than our fleeting attention. She wants us to look at writing in the way we might walk up to a painting to peer at each brushstroke.The idea of close reading might turn a lot of people off but to Prose's credit she makes the process a delightful one. (I wish I had read this as an undergrad!) Taking passages from various works, Prose breaks down what each writer does and achieves, closely examining the language used and how it expresses mood, character, and themes. You'll never look at these works the same way again.Overall, Reading Like a Writer is must-read for any serious reader (and writer).
  • (4/5)
    Thanks to Francine Prose, I have been introduced to Chekhov and other writers. Recommended for those who love books or have a interest in creative writing.
  • (3/5)

    1 person found this helpful

    Don't read this book the way I did -- cover to cover out of general interest. The structure of the chapters are all the same: topic is presented, briefly discussed, then many good examples by famous authors are presented, often through long quotations. As a reader, this was tedious.

    Instead, I think this book could be useful to a novice writer as a reference when they are struggling with a particular concept. In such situation, they can read the corresponding chapter to get some pointers and be exposed to a variety of strong examples. For a writer, this might be helpful.

    The author sets up her exposition as if she is going to share some very important guidelines for writers. Aside from the fact that she acknowledges (in the final chapters) that anytime she gives a Do or Don't to her students she finds an effective example to prove her wrong, she doesn't give guidelines. She gives examples. Take out the quotations from this book and you have an extended newspaper feature article. Boiled right down, her thesis is "read good writing" and proceeds to give you examples of what you should be reading. At least, she does organize the samples to say "this is a good example of ____." I wish she would have closed her examples better; they're almost all intro heavy and exit light (or non-existant). Articulating what specifically was so good about the passage was not a strength. Though perhaps that is her point -- you can't nail down what makes writing good. Yet she has a whole book trying to tell you what good writing is.

    In summary, this is a decent reference book for consultations as needed, but not a read-through kind of book.

    1 person found this helpful

  • (4/5)

    1 person found this helpful

    GoodFrancine Prose is an author who starts this book questioning if “creative writing can be taught” and concluding, as a teacher of creative writing, that it cannot. How to improve your writing can be taught but the love of story and the creative inspiration cannot. However the book does attempt to address the second part of writing, improving the craft. The chapters are “words”, “Sentences”, “Paragraphs”, “Narrative”, “Dialogue”, “learning from Chekov” and “Detail” which give you some idea of her approach. Throughout she is a passionate advocate of reading and liberally intersperses her points with quotes (sometimes very long quotes that last several pages) from her favourite writings. Overall – Recommended for anyone interested in the craft of writing

    1 person found this helpful

  • (3/5)

    1 person found this helpful

    Prose’s love of classical literature is clear throughout the pages of this well-written and informative guide; as the front cover blurb from USA Today put it, this book is a “love letter to the pleasures of reading.”However, it’s also elitist and takes several superior swipes at genre fiction. In her exhortations to readers who want to be writers, Prose does make a compelling case for learning to write by reading classical literature … and reading it slowly, word by word. Her list of “books to be read immediately” combined with the excerpts she included as her examples has added a considerable number of “must-reads” to my already teetering “to –read” pile.While reading Prose’s well-written guide to writers, I was struck with a sense of someone yearning for a bygone era – an era in which life was slower and more easy-paced, and readers had the leisure time to sit and read 1000- page tomes slowly. For that reason, I found much of the admittedly good advice contained in this book could not apply to me as either a reader or a writer.

    1 person found this helpful

  • (4/5)

    1 person found this helpful

    Let me tell you a story. A few years ago I found myself with a small gathering of my friends and somehow the conversation came around to "The Vagina monologues". Bear with me here, it's relevant. None of them had read them or seen them before, but I love them. I spent a good hour and a half that evening talking about them. I performed some, from memory and from the book. I talked through them, explained them, talked about what I found in different ones. I offered to change the topic repeatedly but people kept encouraging me to go on, though I'd have thought they should be bored. Something about the way I was talking to them kept them interested, made what I was talking about interesting and relevant to them. How I imagine my friends felt that evening is how I felt when I read this book. There's a strange kind of joy in listening to people talk about something they're passionate about, and that's the joy I found from this book. Prose clearly loves reading, and every sentence in this text is infussed with a pure love of the written word. Reading this book made me want to run away immediatley and pick up every novel mentioned and read them cover to cover, to appreciate them. I'm not sure about anything else about this book, but I enjoyed it just for the fact that it made me want to read more.

    1 person found this helpful

  • (5/5)

    1 person found this helpful

    One of the most useful books about writing that I've read, not least because it's not about writing, it's about reading.It has taught me the importance of correcting two of my biggest writerly vices - not reading enough good quality fiction, and reading way too quickly. Whether or not I'll be able to correct them is, of course, another matter, though the fact that I'm quite so eager to get my hands on several of the novels and stories Prose mentions or quotes from is presumably a good sign. Particularly the one about the man who falls in love with a bear.

    1 person found this helpful

  • (5/5)

    1 person found this helpful

    Most "how-to-write" books fall into one of two categories; either they are a textbook style list of writing exercises or the emphasize the creativity aspect and suggest things like dream journals. This book, thankfully, falls in neither category. Francine Prose uses this book to show and not tell us what good writing is. She divides the chapters into aspects of writing like sentences and paragraph breaks, but the real joy of this book are the fragments of novels liberally sprinkled through each chapter. From Scott Spencer to Gustave Flaubert and an especially liberal helping of Chekov, Prose gives example after example of what constitutes good writing.I found this book more inspiring and helpful than any other book on creative writing I've read since Stephen King's "On Writing".

    1 person found this helpful

  • (4/5)

    1 person found this helpful

    Normally I don't much care for "how to write better" books. I don't find them to be very useful; I think if you want to learn how to write better fiction you're better off reading a lot of very well-written novels. However I found Prose's book quite useful, because in addition to her giving advice on such things as dialogue, characters, etc., she includes many excerpts from very good novels and explains what the writer did right. Most of the books she quoted from I haven't read myself, and I found myself wanting to. Although Reading Like a Writer took me awhile to get through, I think it was worthwhile. It's one of the few "how to write better" books I can recommend wholeheartedly to amateur fiction writers.

    1 person found this helpful

  • (5/5)

    1 person found this helpful

    What a wonderful book! Warm, passionate, whimsical and humane.I usually have a huge problem with writing books (that is, books about writing) - they don't often practise what they preach! The didactic and the lyrical don't always mix well. And, all right, sometimes they are just compilations of writing exercises that I am just too lazy to do :)I loved the no-nonsense sense of structure in this book, delineated by each chapter: word, sentence, paragraph... just simple and beautiful, the building blocks of literature. Gentle ways of analysing without dissecting.It's funny because although Prose has such a wide and varied knowledge of books, I don't feel woefully underread so much as I feel awfully hungry for more reading. Her wisdom and insight make me realise that I have just read certain some things at too young an age (like Chekhov), just out of the concrete stage, and now that I am older, that these authors are well worth a revisit. And I always mean to read Henry Green, the author whose novel I was to present a paper on, only to be reassigned to Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow when Party Going was out of print. Blechhh!So while this book, more than anything, increased my passion for reading - it will be my companion the next time I walk into a library or a bookshop, and then woe betide my wallet - funnily enough, it hasn't really increased my appetite to write. It makes me want to consume, not produce, fiction, which is somewhat paradoxical. Maybe what it's missing is the hard word from the 'bums on seats' school of writing. Roald Dahl famously called it 'stamina'.

    1 person found this helpful

  • (4/5)
    Informative and relevant to serious writers.
  • (4/5)
    Blockbuster!Prose lives up to her name :-)Writers know that reading is critical to learning their art and craft---this book goes beyond proving it---soaring in the heavens of literature...
  • (3/5)
    This is a hard book to review and rate because I have such conflicting thoughts about the content. On one hand, it did make me really think about structure, dialogue, and gestures of my novel. On the other hand, I feel like I learned nothing concrete--just that I should carefully think about those things, which is kind of frustrating.Overall I'd give it a 3.5. Worth the read definitely, if not for the prod into deeper thinking about the smallest things in your novel.
  • (3/5)
    Francine Prose’s treatise on how to read begins with the admonishment to “read closely,” a useful reminder but hardly anything we haven’t heard before. That was my impression of the entire book. It’s full of good advice and good examples, but not exactly ground-breaking. Prose never digs very deeply into her material. All in all, I preferred Jane Smiley’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel as an instruction manual for reading better.