Reading like writers

But, really, what does it mean to “read like a writer”?

I throw around the phrase whenever I want to persuade myself that I can extend my writer’s workshop model beyond a single school quarter.  We have so much else to teach besides writing: grammar, vocabulary, literature, and oral language, for instance.  I’ve already told the students and parents that, for this school year, these four lesser strands will serve my nominee for the greatest: writing.

[book cover]Here’s how I might co-opt literature by having students “read like a writer.” I’d throw small portions of the curriculum’s poetry, novels, and short stories against a screen and pull them apart with my classes.  The object wouldn’t be to tease rules or “tools” out of the passages but to introduce my ninth graders to close reading.  After (hopefully) hearty discussions, I’d give them handouts of the same short passages, and I’d say, “Write like that.”  I’d give them some prompts to ensure that they’d discover something more than the passages’ plots to emulate.  But beyond that restriction, whatever they’d find, they’d find.  Then they’d share what they had written, and they’d describe what they had found to emulate in the originals.

My plan came from observing my department head’s advanced comp classes.  She is a master at leading this kind of discussion.  The “now you try it” part comes from Robert J. and Ann Ray’s The Art of Reading: A Handbook of Writing, which I’ve reviewed here.

It comes also from Francine Prose’s book Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them, which I finished reading today. Prose sometimes gets through only two pages of a novel in her two-hour college seminar, and she claims that her students generally enjoy the experience.  Her book is a kind of extended seminar, full of quotes and craft from all kinds of literature.  She doesn’t come up with rules or strategies; she points out how certain things work for certain authors, and she shows how certain devices contribute to a passage’s meaning, or at least to a reader’s experience.

Her chapters have titles like “Sentences,” “Paragraphs,” “Character,” “Dialogue,” etc., but the chapter titles are an artifice an editor may have insisted on to make a reader feel as if he were getting somewhere.  The real point of each chapter is that people learn close reading by example and something like osmosis, and that close reading may make a good writer by the same process.  Most of the example part comes from readers participating with readers like my department head and Prose as they pull apart a text.

It’s not surprising that Prose left academics, though.  She explains her decision to drop out of her Ph.D. program in a recent Atlantic Monthly interview:

I just felt that the passion I felt as a reader was not being reflected by my professors and by my future colleagues.  I don’t know what they were doing, but it wasn’t what I was doing.  And I don’t know how they were reading, but it wasn’t how I was reading.  When I look at a list of papers presented at an MLA convention, I still get that same feeling of What are these people talking about? It was extremely alienating, because in theory we were all taking about the same (as they would say) “texts,” but I really, literally, could not understand.

She says that she often felt as if she were “the stupidest person in the room” during graduate seminars.  In contrast to her professors’ approach, Prose’s approach to reading and writing in Reading Like a Writer is devoid of any discussion of theory.

Prose says in the same interview that she was happy when a writing friend read the galleys of Reading Like a Writer and told her, “It’s like Harold Bloom, but written by and for human beings.”  While the book does convey textual insight without theoretical cant, I think the book’s insight reads less like Bloom’s than like that of Cleanth Brooks, whom Bloom criticized.  It makes sense that it would.  Prose was thankful that the high school teacher who started her on close reading was influenced by Brooks’s New Criticism, and she claims that the warring critical factions (including the deconstruction that Bloom flirted with) filling the vaccumn left by New Criticism chased her out of grad school.  Prose also dedicates a chapter of Reading Like a Writer to Checkov, and she likes Checkov in part for his refusal to moralize.  Like Checkov, Brooks defended himself against charges that he preferred art before sentiment or morality in his literature.

Bloom also felt that one must push off the weight of literary tradition to write well, while Brooks’s sensibilities lead him in the opposite direction: one must embrace and find one’s place in literary tradition to write well.  As her book’s title suggests, Prose seems to fall more in line with Brooks’s thinking in this regard, too.

But is the reading that Brooks and Prose espouse really “reading like a writer”?  Prose says her graduate school classmates weren’t reading like her; presumably, they were (at worst) reading to discover evidence in support of their own theses in secondary writings such as literary analysis essays.  Isn’t that reading like a writer, too?  I do plan to use close reading to train my students to write the literary analysis essays that they’ll have to write from ninth grade forward.  It’s my deal with the devil.

New Criticism certainly has generated its own share of secondary writers, writers of literary analysis and criticism.  Of course, Brooks himself, except most notably for some poetry, wrote mostly literary criticism.  Perhaps Brooks was like John McCain, who had to raise money under the old campaign finance system to put himself in the position to change that system.  But do the ends justify the means in Brooks’s case?  Prose may have found a less hypocritical way to read like a writer: she read a lot, she wrote a mess of novels, and then she wrote a book about how she reads.

I want my students to read for pleasure even more than I want them reading like writers, though.   One of the best things our school’s English department requires is twenty minutes of silent reading for pleasure each English class period.  The students select the books, and the teachers are not supposed to assess their reading in any way.  I think reading for pleasure is the foundation of any other kind of reading.  If reading for pleasure is removed, what can the righteous do?

I will, however, suggest ways for my students to find more pleasure in their reading.  I’ll also require them to read closely at times, and I’ll require them to try and emulate what they find in their close reading.  But teachers should always be conscious of how their overall literature instruction may quickly take the life out of all reading, and therefore out of most writing.

We teachers should teach reading first and specific texts secondarily.  Each assigned reading is an opportunity to inspire students to read more closely over a lifetime. Reading Like a Writer sees things this way.  It teaches reading skills through the example of a good reader, not writing techniques through examples in good literature.  The book is at its best where it suggests how writers may bring good reading skills to any good literature.  I got the feeling that, long before writing her book, Prose was reading her book’s long, quoted passages over and over with excitement and jealousy – a creator’s mixed emotions – while telling herself, “I can do that!”

While ninth grade is the first year of the mandated surrender – the first year of the literary analysis essay – it may also be the final year of the innocent conviction that we can eventually learn to write like the masters.

By Peter

After stints as a trial lawyer and a church worker, Peter Stephens has settled in as a Virginia high school English teacher. Peter has read several books and poems. He wrote none of the posts below filed under "Passages." Click the link at the end of each post to see it in the context of the author's original post.