My favorite short story writers are Issac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and Philip K. Dick. These authors took the impossible and made them seem mundane, then pushed the world off it’s axis at the story’s end. These are fun stories to read, you never know what’s going to happen next, but you always know something is going happen.
Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them by Francine Prose is about her favorite stories and writers. Like many college educated writers, she is a huge fan of Long Dead Writers, and a particular fan of Anton Chekhov. Her advice at one point boils down to-Read Chekhov. Or more precisely, read Chekhov slowly. To me Chekhov’s unpronounceable names tend to force that slowness upon me.
Reading Like a Writer is broken down into segments which cover the basic building blocks of writing; close reading, words, sentences, paragraphs, narration, character, dialogue, detail, and gestures. She quotes from the likes of Issac Babel, Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ezra Pound. There is the occasional mention of a more contemporary writer, such as Elmore Leonard and Gabriel García Márquez, but even here the works quoted are often thirty years old. It seems that, having found Chekhov, Francine Prose decides she need never read anything else.
Reading Like a Writer is an interesting book and it is fun to hear someone who is so enraptured by an author that is not as widely read as he could be. Francine Prose rejoices in the fact that Chekhov’s stories are not like other stories, they detail the mundane and the ordinary and they often have no great ending, they just stop. Much as in real life, there is more before the events recounted and more after, but those events are not Chekhov’s concern.
We are told that the writers she quotes from are geniuses and that we would do well to model our own writing upon their works, as if such a thing were possible. I have had that common writer’s experience of reading a bit of great writing and then finding that style of writing affecting my own work for a short period afterward. It is possible to go back days or weeks later and marvel at the quality of what was written. This kind of channeling never lasts long with me, and I’m sure I could not pretend to be someone else anyway.
Reading Like a Writer is not suggesting that emerging yourself in Chekhov will make you an obsessive observer of life and a chronicler of it’s many small and shared experiences. It does suggest that your writing might be better if you tried.
I have never been a huge fan of Chekhov, but I am now going to read a few of his short stories and see if the sky opens up for me. And to be fair to Francine Prose, all of my favorite short story writers are long dead now as well, though they were all very much alive when I first started reading them.
Should it matter if a favorite author is dead or alive? It shouldn’t, but for some reason it does. I am also a bigger fan of Sci Fi, and the one genius of Science Fiction which would fit in well with this group of austere writers is Stanislaw Lem. Lem’s work is great and baffling and filled with the mundane details of worlds that never existed. Lem is Polish and Chekhov is Russian, maybe it has something to do with the weather.
Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them is a good book, but I would have liked a few examples of great writing from contemporary authors. I have never been a great stylist myself, as any casual reader can tell, and books like this always make me want to up my game a bit. I seldom do, but it is nice to think that all of us could if we just read enough Babel, Chekhov, and Fitzgerald.