Sunday, March 11, 2007

Nauseating Prose

Title: Reading Like a Writer: A Guide For People Who Love Books and For Those Who Want to Write Them
Author: Francine Prose

In the ongoing process of becoming a writer, I read and reread the authors I most loved. I read for pleasure, first, but also more analytically, conscious of style, of diction, 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, like reading, was done one word at a time, one punctuation mark at a time. It 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.

Skip it.

While Reading Like a Writer is not the worst guide to writing out there, it’s definitely one of the most annoying. Prose’s instruction technique amounts to nothing more than presenting the reader with a long passage from a book and asserting that this is an example of how it’s done. There’s little genuine literary analysis, and many of the selections are from obscure books I’ve never heard of – which makes reading long chunks of text from them rather pointless.

Furthermore, the margins of my copy are filled with snarky comments, because Prose drove me crazy with her vague assertions, inaccurate analysis, and her often mean-spirited judgmental attitude to other people. She freaks out waiting in a bus stop, because the other patrons “looked like they’d happily blow my brains out on the chance of finding a couple of Valiums in my purse.” If you took her word for it, this bus station was her equivalent of a “Heart of Darkness” journey. I couldn’t stomach it.

But Prose and I never had much chance of getting along. We have completely different tastes in books. I knew there was a fundamental difference between us when she confessed to struggling with the last hundred pages of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera. Why, might you ask? Well, because she “kept having to put the book down because my eyes kept welling with tears.” B*tch, please. Those same hundred pages had me rolling my eyes and snorting with cynical disgust into my latte. Crying during Cholera is akin to sniffling over an Anne Geddes photograph.

Worst of all, Prose is often clueless about the very books she’s analyzing. And I do mean clueless. I’ll share the most egregious example. She presents her readers with a passage from Austen’s Pride & Prejudice, instructing them to study it so they can see how deftly Jane painted the characters of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet. All well and good. There’s no one better than dear old Jane to teach characterization. But then Prose actually writes the following:

“Lest we receive a skewed or harsh impression of the Bennet’s own marriage, Mr. Bennet compliments his wife by suggesting that she is as handsome as their daughters. In fact, as we are discovering, theirs is a harmonious union, and indeed the whole conversation, with its intimacy, its gentle teasing, and with Mr. Bennet’s joking reference to his old friendship with his wife’s nerves, is a double portrait of a happy couple.” [Emphasis added.]

Bullshit. That’s complete and utter bullshit.

Those of you familiar with the novel probably know the passage Prose is discussing – and how wildly inaccurate her description of the Bennets as a “happy couple” and a “harmonious union” actually is. Did Prose even read the book? Lizzy implicitly describes her parents’ marriage as a partnership where neither party “loves nor respects the other.” Mr. Bennet himself admits he looks down upon his wife (“My child, let me not have the grief of seeing you unable to respect your partner in life.”). And here are Austen’s own words on the subject:

“Had Elizabeth's opinion been all drawn from her own family, she could not have formed a very pleasing picture of conjugal felicity or domestic comfort. Her father, captivated by youth and beauty, and that appearance of good humour which youth and beauty generally give, had married a woman whose weak understanding and illiberal mind had, very early in their marriage, put an end to all real affection for her. Respect, esteem, and confidence had vanished for ever; and all his views of domestic happiness were overthrown.”

Are we to suppose that Prose understands the characters of Jane Austen better than Jane herself? Is Prose that much of a genius? Is she that perceptive? Call me crazy, but I doubt it.

Anyway, once I read Prose’s inexplicable analysis of Pride and Prejudice, Reading Like A Writer was over for me. A book just doesn’t recover from that kind of blow. From then on, it was just one long, downhill slide towards mediocrity.

Oh, and who wants to take bets that Prose at one point changed her last name? I mean, a writer called ‘Prose’? C’mon. I bet her real name is Smith, or Jablewski, or perhaps even Biscuit Barrel.

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posted by Elizabeth at 10:03 PM


Blogger Kat said...

Yuck, sounds absolutely dreadful. what a horrible misinterpretation of the relationship between Mr. & Mrs. Bennet.

And I agree, the last name of Prose must be a pen name or something similar.

3/15/2007 7:41 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth said...

I guess I wouldn't say the whole book was awful...I did get one or two good reading recommendations from it. But the P&P section WAS nightmarish...which I guess did make me doubt the accuracy of her approach to all the texts she discussed, even those I'd never read.

Oh, and then there was this paragraph:

"Once I assigned a class to eavesdrop on strangers and transcribe the results. I decided to try it myself, in a university coffee shop. Within moments I overheard a young woman telling her male companion about a dream in which she saw Liza Minelli arrayed in white robes and a starry crown, dressed as the Queen of Heaven. What made the conversation doubly engaging was that the girl seemed to be omantically attracted to her friend, and was using her story as a means of seduction, unaware that he was, insofar as I could tell, gay. This fact was no unrelated to his lively interest in Liza Minelli, yet another connection that his companion was preferring not to make."

Er...huh? She watches these people for a few minutes in the coffee shop and can immediately deduce that she's desperate and he's gay? I mean, I would make up a story like that about people I was eavesdropping on, but I wouldn't presume to think it true. She doesn't know them. How rude.

3/15/2007 9:57 PM  
Blogger reyn said...

I love making up stories like that, but it's not often that I convince myself that I'm right. At least, not on something so... big.

3/16/2007 6:19 AM  

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