I admire and enjoy good writing. And I've read plenty of books where I thought, "That's just bad." But recognizing good and bad writing and being able to say why it's good or bad are two very difference levels of reading. The aptly-named writer Francine Prose has written Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them. Her discussions of character, dialogue, sentences, paragraphs, narration, and other elements of writing encouraged me to read more thoughfully and to evaluate what I read more critically.
As a book on writing should do, Prose provides selections from a wide variety of sources, focusing on literary fiction, to exemplify her points. At times I thought her analysis got carried away. When her discussion stretched on for two or three times the length of the passage, she often sounded like she was reading way more into a passage than the author ever thought about.
Prose also likes to talk about rules for writing, then promptly argue that the rules are meant to be broken. On several occasions, she said, she corrected flaw in her students' work, then realized that Chekhov (her favorite writer) did, in his stories, exactly what she tells her students not to do. Like any art form, one must learn the rules before one can disdain them.
Speaking of disdain, I wonder if she disdains best-sellnig authors. Many of the authors she quotes are the kinds of books that most people only read in a college literature class. I certainly would not say that John Grisham, Stephen King, and Tom Clancy are in the same class as Jane Austen, Henry James, and Ernest Hemingway. But there are reasons that people love to read the former, and many people do not like to read the latter. Those reasons certainly have to do with refined taste (more people drink Miller Lite than drink gourmet craft beer), but I would like Prose to have applied her criticism to popular authors. After all, if I'm going to be a writer, I want to write something that people actually want to read!
In my fantasy life, I would be a great writer. I am certain that will never happen. With Prose's help I may not become a great writer, but I know I can be a better reader. Whether reading a Grisham best-seller, a sci-fi space opera, a spy novel, a classic novel, or contemporary literary fiction, Prose's guidance will help me be more reflective.
2016 Reading Challenge: A book about writing