Francine Prose’s Reading Like A Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them is a book I started back in the spring of 2016. It was one of the assigned books for the writing class I was taking at the time. I got halfway through it back then before drowning in my other books and decided last week to pick it back up and clear it off my “to read” shelf.
And, let me tell you, this book is terrible.
Oh, what? You don’t believe me? Well, shit, class, turn to chapter ten, Learning From Chekhov, and read the first two paragraphs out loud.
In the late 1980s, I taught at a college two and a half hours from my home. I traveled down once a week, stayed overnight, came back. Through most of the winter I commuted by bus. The worst part was waiting in the New Rochelle Trailways Station. The bus was often late, so I wound up being in the station, on the average, forty minutes a week.
Although the bus station was a glassed-in corner storefront, none of the windows opened, so the only time air moved was when someone came through the door. There was a ticket counter, a wall of men’s magazines, a phone, a rack of dusty candy. The station was never crowded, which was hardly a comfort when half the people who were there looked like they’d happily blow my brains out on the chance of finding a couple of Valiums in my purse.
Look how writerly she presents her privileged self! Ooh! 40 minutes at a week waiting for a bus! And it’s the 80s and there’s so much crime! Every week she steps into a fucking Frank Miller comic book!!1! God damn, somebody get the governor on this!
Books like this only reinforce the following opinion in my mind: that writing books, writing programs, writing conferences, etc—Big Writing—is less about actually teaching people to write coherent and entertaining stories than it is actually some self-perpetuating industry that resembles the self-help industry. Get one book published and suddenly you’re qualified to teach writing classes online and in writing programs. Most of the people teaching in the Hopkins writing program are themselves graduates of the same program. And then they make students in the program buy the books of prior graduates.
Before I go too far down the road, here’s my book journal entry for this title:
Prose quotes Chekhov’s short stories and writing advice constantly, to the point where I’m convinced I should throw her book in the trash and just pick up one of Chekhov’s instead. It’s true: everything I truly learned from her book was pulled from her excerpts of Chekhov. How ’bout that?
And my comment in my book journal about Reservoir Dogs is not a joke. For reals. Watch the hell out of that movie. The dialogue is incredible. The plotting and characterization are tight. And then this scene. You’ll learn more about how to tell a story just from the black dude’s monologue than you would reading Prose’s book. And in much less time.