Like most writers, I learned to write by writing and by example, by reading books. Long before the idea of a writers’ conference was a glimmer in anyone’s eye, writers learned by reading the work of their predecessors. They studied metre with Ovid, plot construction with Homer, comedy with Aristophanes.
In becoming a writer, I read and reread the authors I most loved. I read for pleasure, first, but also more analytically, conscious of how sentences were formed and information was being conveyed, how the writer was structuring a plot, creating characters, employing detail and dialogue. And as I wrote, I discovered that writing required what a friend calls “putting every word on trial for its life”: changing an adjective, cutting a phrase, removing a comma and putting the comma back in.
I read closely, pondering each deceptively minor decision the writer had made. We all begin as close readers. Even before we learn to read, the process of being read aloud to, and of listening, is one in which we are taking in one word after another, one phrase at a time, in which we are paying attention to whatever each word or phrase is transmitting. Word by word is how we learn to hear and then read, which seems only fitting, because it is how the books we are reading were written in the first place.
As a child, I was drawn to the works of the great escapist children’s writers. I liked trading my familiar world for the London of the four children whose nanny parachuted into their lives with her umbrella and who turned the most routine shopping trip into a magical outing. I loved novels in which children stepped through portals into an alternate universe and novels with plucky heroines such as the astringent Jane Eyre and the daughters in Little Women, girls whose resourcefulness and intelligence don’t automatically exclude them from the pleasures of male attention.
Along with pre-adolescence came a more pressing desire for escape. I read more indiscriminately and mostly with an interest in how far a book could take me from my life and how long it could keep me there: Gone With the Wind, Pearl Buck, Edna Ferber, fat bestsellers by James Michener, with a dash of history sprinkled in to cool down the steamy love scenes between the Hawaiian girls and the missionaries, the geishas and the GIs. I also appreciated these books for the often misleading nuggets of information that they provided about sex in the innocent 1950s.
I was fortunate to have good teachers and friends who were also readers. The books I read became more challenging, better written: Steinbeck, Camus, Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Twain. My friends and I were passionate fans of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti. We read Truman Capote and the proto-hippie classics of Herman Hesse, Carlos Castaneda – Mary Poppins for people who thought they’d outgrown the flying nanny. I must have been vaguely aware of the power of language but only dimly and only as it applied to whatever effect the book was having on me.
All of that changed with every mark I made on the pages of King Lear and Oedipus Rex.
I still have my old copy of Sophocles, heavily underlined, covered with sweet, embarrassing notes-to-self (“Irony?” “Recognition of fate?”) written in my rounded, heartbreakingly neat schoolgirl print. Like seeing a photograph of yourself as a child, encountering handwriting that you know was once yours but that now seems only dimly familiar can inspire a confrontation with the mystery of time.
Only once did my passion for reading steer me in the wrong direction and that was when I let it persuade me to go to graduate school. There, I soon realised that my love for books was unshared by many of my classmates and professors. I found it hard to understand what they did love, exactly, and this gave me an anxious shiver that would later seem like a warning about what would happen to the teaching of literature over the decade or so after I dropped out of my PhD programme. That was when literary academia split into warring camps of deconstructionists, Marxists, feminists and so forth, all battling for the right to tell students that they were reading “texts” in which ideas and politics trumped what the writer had actually written.
I left graduate school and became a writer. I wrote my first novel in India, in Bombay, where I read as omnivorously as I had as a child, rereading classics that I borrowed from the old-fashioned, musty, beautiful university library that seemed to have acquired almost nothing written after 1920.
After my novels began to be published, I started to teach, taking a succession of jobs as a visiting writer at colleges and universities. Usually, I would teach one creative writing workshop each semester, together with a literature class. Alternately, I would conduct a reading seminar for students who wanted to be writers rather than scholars, which meant that it was all right for us to fritter away our time talking about books rather than politics or ideas.
I enjoyed the reading classes and the opportunity to function as a cheerleader for literature. I liked my students, who were often so eager, bright and enthusiastic that it took me years to notice how much trouble they had in reading a fairly simple short story. They had been encouraged to form strong, critical and often negative opinions of geniuses who had been read with delight for centuries before they were born. They had been instructed to prosecute or defend these authors, as if in a court of law, on charges having to do with the writers’ origins, their racial, cultural and class backgrounds. No wonder they found it so stressful to read!
I began to change the way I taught. No more general discussions of this character or that plot turn. No more attempts to talk about how it felt to read Borges or Poe or to describe the experience of navigating the fantastic fictional worlds they created. Instead I organised classes around the more pedestrian method of beginning at the beginning, lingering over every word, every phrase, every image, considering how it enhanced and contributed to the story as a whole. This remains the way I prefer to teach, partly because it’s a method from which I benefit nearly as much as my students.
I’ve always thought that a close-reading course should at least be a companion, if not an alternative, to the creative writing workshop. Though it also doles out praise, the workshop most often focuses on what a writer has done wrong, what needs to be fixed, cut or augmented, whereas reading a masterpiece can inspire us by showing us how a writer does something brilliantly.
There are writers to whom I keep returning: Chekhov, Joyce, Austen, George Eliot, Kafka, Tolstoy, Flannery O’Connor, Katherine Mansfield, Nabokov, Raymond Carver, James Baldwin, Alice Munro – the list goes on. They are the authorities I consult, the models that still help to inspire me with the energy and courage it takes to sit down at a desk each day and resume the process of learning, anew, to write.
This is an edited extract from “Reading Like a Writer: a Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them” by Francine Prose (Union Books, £12.99)