Wednesday, December 12, 2012

MINI BOOK REVIEW: Reading Like a Writer, by Francine Prose (Yes, That's Really Her Name)


I can pinpoint the moment when I more or less gave up on "serious" American fiction.  Probably about 15 years ago.  The book was Susan Minot's Evening.

The book was hugely praised, as had been her previous short stories and novels.  Raves from all quarters.

I overcame my negative reaction to the photograph of the author on the back cover -- I'd purchased it in hardcover -- which struck me as self-satisfied and somehow unserious for an author of serious fiction:

All right, it's unfair.  But I didn't judge the book by its cover.  I bought it and I started to read it.

In fairness to Ms. Minot, I had been souring on serious American fiction for a long time.  By "serious" fiction, I mean fiction that aspires to be literature, to be art.  This would exclude most modern crime and "best-seller" romantic fiction, although some would call (for example) what Elmore Leonard does "literature," and I would not entirely disagree with them.  Chandler, Hammett, Macdonald, absolutely.   I'm talking about fiction that explores fundamental human issues like love, freedom, power, sexuality, family, memory, God, gods, truth, beauty, and what to do with one's damned life.  I had been reading American literature, past and present, for a long time, before I had to start reading law texts and since I was able to stop, and there was a time when I loved much of what I selected. 

But sometime in the early-to-mid Nineties, I started hitting some clinkers.  Novels and short stories both.  I blamed the academy, notably the Iowa Writers Workshop, whose graduates were turning out dull, solipsistic fiction about extremely uninteresting humans.  And of course there was that old villain, the New York Literary Establishment, a bunch of people who all went to the same parties and who reinforced one another's judgments about the Bright Young Things that were emerging amongst the baby boomers.

So maybe I was unfair when I stopped reading Evening about a third of the way into it.  I thought I might be able to pinpoint the page.  Sometimes when I put a book aside, which is not often, I'll leave a bookmark in there, thinking I might come back to it.  I just went to my library -- nope, apparently I did not think it could be salvaged.

My memory of it is vague.  A woman was dying.  There were recollections of love affairs, betrayal of friends and lovers, I think.  There was not an appealing or affirmative character in the bunch.  Mostly women, as I recall.  Nothing wrong with that; they just weren't interesting or likable women.  Their thoughts were pedestrian, their urges dully sexual.   (I admire many female authors:  Willa Cather, Grace Paley, Flannery O'Connor, Jayne Anne Phillips, to name a few.)   I think there was a sister or best friend involved somehow.  I don't remember what I thought of the writing, but I can tell you that during this period, the Minimalists (Ann Beattie and the like) had seriously infiltrated American fiction, misunderstanding the appeal of Hemingway and writing in prose so plain that it had the unintentional effect of revealing with great clarity that the authors had little of interest to convey.  This book was like that.

So I stopped buying new serious fiction.  My next read?  Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep, and that was that -- I began devouring crime fiction and never really went back.  (Two marvelous exceptions:  Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March and David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest -- both leading candidates for Great American Novel -- really, Martin Amis has so nominated Augie March.)  And I started reading poetry. 

I was in a bookstore at Logan Airport recently and my eye rested on Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer.  If there is one thing I like as much as reading fiction, it's reading about writing fiction.  I probably have forty books about writing reposing in my library. 

I loved it.  It consists of very close readings of excerpts of word use, sentences, paragraphs, narrative, dialogue, and other literary devices mostly taken from classical literature -- interestingly, comparatively few examples from modern English-language fiction.  Her readings were convincing and themselves delightful reading.   It made me remember the pleasure I took (and still take) from great writing, from careful prose no less evocative for being careful. 

It also made me remember that I had a book sitting on my shelf that had been a Christmas gift two years ago from a reader whose intelligence, taste, and judgment I trusted:  Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, winner of the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award and lavishly reviewed everywhere.  Oprah and Obama both raved about it.  Although you may remember Franzen from his dustup with Oprah when he declined to cooperate with Oprah's selection of his previous smash hit, The Corrections, for her Book Club.  Apparently, she had no hard feelings.

It's next on my list.

I'll give you a report.

N.B.:  I just checked Susan Minot's Wikipedia entry.  Evening was published in 1998.  She published one other novel (Rapture, 2002), and that was it. 
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