Francine Prose is a lovely writer, graceful in the ease with which her words unroll into sentences that read themselves to you. She is a prolific author, and of her many works at least two are directed to those of us concerned about reading and writing. Her What to Read and Why (2018) names the authors and titles of works worth our time, and her earlier Reading Like a Writer (2006) treats the details of the craft by examining illustrations from accomplished authors.
I say all this because we don’t hear often enough how important it is to be in front of what we want to achieve, to see how others do what we want to do. Without models, we don’t have something concrete to aim for, a standard of work to achieve; and without a real ideal before us, so to speak, we have to work much harder to find an appropriate form for all those good ideas that rise up in our mind when we sit down to write. Francine Prose’s two works can stand as models for us, and there is a sentence in the latter that demonstrates why.
The first four chapters of Reading Like a Writer are indispensable. She takes up first the procedure of close reading (something I have touched upon in an earlier post, Reading Closely), and then enters into the working details of words, sentences, and paragraphs. In the second chapter, she is discussing the use of classical writers as models, and in referring to the nineteenth-century British novelist Anthony Trollope, Prose says this:
Not all great writers may seem great to us, regardless of how often and how hard we try to see their virtues. I know, for example, that Trollope is considered to have been a brilliant novelist, but I’ve never quite understood what makes his fans so fervent.
There is something for us to observe in each of the two sentences of this passage. Reading it through (aloud if circumstances allow), we can hear its natural, conversational tone. How many times, for example, have we heard someone expressing their convinced opinion about something by following a perhaps surprising assertion (“not all great writers may seems great to us”) with the phrase regardless of, and probably with a little extra emphasis on the word regardless to accentuate their conviction. This mimicking of conversational phraseology, along with the contractions, tells us subtly that the author is one of us; she bridges what distance we may think there is between her thinking and our own, and we find ourselves with weapons down, standing at ease to hear more about her idea.
But in the second sentence, Prose illustrates why clear thinking, or incisive perception, accounts in large measure for an attractive style. Remember that writers are constantly directing the attention of their readers: look here, not there; consider this, not that. Prose has begun the second sentence by asking us to think about Trollope’s reputation, and when the second half of the statement begins with but, a conjunction that shows opposition, we know (or think we know) that she is about to say that, no, I don’t think Trollope is that great—because the easiest way to oppose an idea is to deny it outright. But what does she do? Instead of denying his reputation and telling us why, Prose turns our attention from Trollope to his admirers, and specifically to his admirers’ emotional reaction. Now we see not a lone literary figure whose reputation is under interrogation, but an enthusiastic, zealous, fervent crowd clamoring outside the police station. The rhetorical move doesn’t strengthen Prose’s position (for now she has a crowd of dissenters to take on), but it says, in effect, Let’s not go there, but I’ll grant you he’s popular with some.
This sudden turning of our attention in an unexpected direction (a lesser writer would have tried to explain why she didn’t like Trollope) can happen only when the author holds a wider view of a specific scene in her mind: there is no fame without fans, and we can think about an idea in a different way if we can see and say something about the wider, more variegated world of which that idea is a part. That’s good writing, and the time spent with Francine Prose’s prose can yield much: wise words about writing written beautifully.