Wednesday 26 December 2012

Literary discipline with Francine Rose: the significance of sentences.

Product DetailsApart from the Sarah Lund Sweater from the beloved, one of my favourite  presents - from my ever perspicacious  friend Gillian - was Reading Like a Writer  by the aptly named Francine Prose. I  have referred to her ideas here before but my Boxing day treat has been to sit by the roaring fire and  read this book wrapped for me like a Christmas prose present.
      Francine Prose is a great advocate of the very close reading of great writers, both to enhance our pleasure as readers and enhance our skills as writers.
    She clearly  real problems with academic approaches to the teaching of  literature. She dropped out of her PhD programme after realising that ‘literary academia had split into warring camps of deconstructionists, Marxists feminists and so forth, all battling to tellthe readers they were reading “Texts” in which ideas and politics trumped what the writer had  actually written.’ *
     Later she says of her students  ‘…They had been instructed to prosecute and defend these authors, as if in a court of law, on charges having to do with the writer’s origins, their racial, cultural, and class backgrounds.’
      Here, using as her authorities the work of such writers as Katherine Mansfield, Alice Munro, James Baldwin, Checkov, Heinrich von Kleist,and Virginia Woolf - Francine Prose returns to the fundamental disciplines of the word, the sentence and the paragraph  to illustrate the genius of such great writers before proceeding to their take on the familiar aspects of dialogue, character and narration.
     She focuses on examples of genius in a writer’s choice of a particular word to steer complex meaning in the right direction.  She showcases the way the structure of long sentences in some writers’ work delivers meaning and consequence in one beautiful flowing package.  Her examples of this process make me think of how one element in my own editing  is to shorten my sentences, make them crisper, more powerful. This is the modern way but listening to Francine Rose I will reconsider this instinct more thoughtfully in the future.

See for yourself:  on long sentences Francine Prose quotes the opening sentences of Stanley Elkin’s ' The Making of Ashenden:

' “All my adult life I have been a guest in other people’s houses, following the sun and seasons like a migratory bird, an instinct in me, the rich man’s cunning feel for ripeness, some oyster-in-and-r-month notion working there which knows without reference to anything outside itself when to pack the tennis racket, when to bring along the German field classes to look at a friend’s birds, the telescope to stare at his stars, the wet suit to swim beneath his waters when the exotic fish are running. It is not in the Times when the black dinner jacket comes off and the white goes on; it’s something surer, subtler, the delicate guidance system of the privileged, my playboy astronomy…” '

     Naturally she quotes Ernest Hemingway and further comments:

‘ Hemingway was not only thinking about the good and true and beautiful sentence but using it as sustenance – as a goal to focus on, as a way of  keeping himself going. And though it’s obvious that times have changed, that what was true of Hemingway’s era may not be true today, the fact remains that Hemingway not only cared about sentences, not only told his publishers that they mattered to him, but told his readers and told the world.
       The young would-be writers of great sentences can perhaps take comfort in the fact that Hemingway’s interest in sentences did not appear to have hurt his career...’

         And worth noting is that Francine's last chapter is entitled Reading For Courage.That appeals,. To be a writer today certainly needs courage,.

Now!  I must eat another mince pie and go away and take a good, hard look at my own sentences. That will be another Boxing Day joy.

A good way to use your Christmas Book Tokens, perhaps?

*Is one of the problems with some current Creative Writing degrees at all levels that they are staffed by academics stultified by this tradition?

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