Francine Prose, the literature, movie and TV reviewer at the New York Review of Books is the writer I always go to for an opinion of a new TV series, a new movie or a new novel.
I’ve been following Prose for the last ten years or so, ever since I first read her great book Reading like a Writer: A guide for People who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them.
Reading like a Writer is for both readers and writers. For me, it has been the best book on understanding literature and especially modern fiction that I have ever read. Unfortunately, as an ex-English teacher, I’ve read a quite a few books on this subject, that were intensely boring and that I would never recommend to anyone. But not this one. Prose’s book manages to be lively, funny and very serious, all at the same time. I think that for most readers, this book could be the best ever explainer for understanding what literature is really about. One of the parts of the book I liked best was Prose’s stories about her early years of learning to read literature, about her years of trying to teach writing, and especially about her long dismal trail rides, reading Chekhov to help her forget just how bad this trip to the university where she tried to earn a living teaching teaching kids to be writers really was.
Prose’s book has chapters on close reading, and narrative and character that are joys to read if you have always kind-of known about things like untrustworthy narrators or symbolism or imagery but never really understood what this stuff was actually about.
My favorite chapter in the book is called, “Learning From Chekhov.” Prose’s favorite writer is the Russian short story writer Anton Chekhov. She used to tell her writing students, that if they really wanted to learn to write fiction, they should just read Chekhov instead of listening to her. At the end of the chapter on Chekhov she quotes Vladimir Nabokov, the author of Lolita, on why Chekhov is such a great writer and on what we can learn from him about reading or writing literature. I quote this passage in full
“Before I finish this chapter, [says Prose] I’d like to quote Vladimir Nabokov’s summation of his lecture on Chekhov’s story “The Lady with the Dog”:
[Nabokov says that…] All the traditional rules of storytelling have been broken in this wonderful story of twenty pages or so. There is no problem, no climax, no point at the end. And yet it is one of the greatest stories ever written.
I will now repeat the different features that are typical for this and other Chekhov tales.
“First: The story is told in the most natural way possible, not beside the after-dinner fireplace as with Turgenev or Maupassant, but in the way one person relates to another the most important things in his life, slowly and yet without a break, in a slightly subdued voice.
Second: Exact and rich characterization is attained by a careful selection and careful distribution of minute but striking features, with perfect contempt for the sustained description, repetition, and strong emphasis of ordinary authors….
Third: There is no special moral to be drawn and no special message to be received.
Fourth: The story is based in a system of waves, on the shades of this or that mood. In Chekhov, we get a world of waves instead of particles of matter.
Sixth: The story does not really end, for as long as people are alive, there is no possible and definite conclusion to their troubles or hopes or dreams.
Seventh: The storyteller seems to keep going out of his way to allude to trifles, every one of which in another type of story would mean a signpost denoting a turn of the action. But just because these trifles are meaningless in the Chekhov story, they are all-important in giving the real atmosphere of this particular story.”
[Prose goes on to say…] Let me repeat one sentence which seems to me particularly significant. “We feel that for Chekhov the lofty and the base are not different, that the slice of watermelon and the violet sea and the hands of the town governor are essential points of the beauty plus pity of the world.” And what I might add to this is: the more Chekhov we read, the more strongly we feel this. I have often thought that Chekhov’s stories should not be read singly but as separate parts of a whole. For like life, they present contradictory views, opposing visions. Reading them, we think: How broad life is! How many ways there are to live! In this world, where anything can happen, how much is possible! Our whole lives can change in a moment. Or: Nothing will ever change—especially the fact that the world and the human heart will always be wider and deeper than anything we can fathom.
And this is what I’ve come to think about what I learned and what I taught and what I should have taught. Wait! I should have said to the class: Come back! I’ve made a mistake. Forget observation, consciousness, clear-sightedness. Forget about life. Read Chekhov, read the stories straight through. Admit that you understand nothing of life, nothing of what you see. Then go out and look at the world.”
Prose, Francine. Reading Like a Writer (P.S.) (pp. 246-248). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
OK, so much for Francine Prose’s book on how to understand literature.
Now-a-days I mostly read Prose in the NYR Daily. This is the New York Review of Books daily, online Blog. This, in my opinion, is one of the best places to keep up on the political, cultural, and literary, news of the world. I actually think the NYR Daily is better than the actual NYRB magazine itself.
Here is a link for all of Francine Prose’s recent articles in the NYRB. If you click this link, You get a list of all of Prose’s articles for NYRB. Her articles that have appeared in the NYRB magazine itself appear first. A couple of these that interested me in the current list are a book review of Michael Chabon’s new novel Moonglow, and a review of a biography about Blanche Knoph the real head of the Knopf Publishing firm that published most of the best books in America for a lot of the 20th century.
In the second section of the Francine Prose list of articles, are articles that appeared in NYR Daily.
Here there is a great review of the new Hulu series The Handmaid’s Tale which Prose didn’t like all that well and in which she says “Gradually it occurred to me that I was watching an orgy of violence against women—promoted and marketed as high-minded, politically astute popular entertainment.”
There is also a review of the new HBO mini series Big Little Lies. Prose pretty much likes this series. About Big Little Lies, she says “What are we meant to conclude about the sexual experiences of women when we realize that two out of four of the smart, beautiful women in the HBO series Big Little Lies have been—or are being—abused? Perhaps it’s a sign of the times in which we live, that something intended to be a frothy, sexy Sunday night entertainment (it has been described as “darkly comic”) should turn out to conceal a message about the prevalence of overt and hidden violence against women.”
Here is a link to my article on Big Little Lies. I have to say that Prose’s article is a lot better that mine. Read her article first.
But, I’ll let you take it from here. As you can see, I think Francine prose is a great writer and someone with a lot of insight into life in the modern world. I recommend trying her out.