Friday, July 28, 2006

Atlantic interview with Francine Prose

The fiction edition of The Atlantic Monthly contains an interview with Francine Prose, and I like her attitude.

You said in that conversation that you became a writer because you were an avid
reader and that you were often perplexed by the fact that some of your students
who wanted to be writers weren’t reading—or weren’t reading passionately.

That hasn’t gotten any better, let me tell you. ... I said, “Have any of you read Crime and Punishment?” Silence. “Have any of you read anything by Dostoevsky?” More silence. And these were graduate students. I don’t quite get it. On a very basic level, I can’t figure out why people would want to write unless they like to read. I mean, what would be the point? For the incredibly glamorous fast track lifestyle? I don’t think so.
I’ve noticed that high school students can have a certain resistance to reading if it’s something that’s imposed on them, whereas if they can discover a book on their own, they’re more apt to be passionate about reading and to love the book.

I think it’s partly that teachers are teaching books that they themselves find boring to students who are bored by them. And they’re teaching them in a way that bores the students. It’s just this cycle of boredom that goes on and on and round and round. Whereas reading is the least boring thing you can do. It’s so engaging and it’s so endlessly satisfying, really. The idea of it becoming associated in people’s minds with tedium is kind of tragic.
People often make the claim that one of the dangers of the workshop setting is that it produces cookie-cutter stories, and styles that are too similar, or too similar to the
tastes of the instructor. Have you seen this happen? How, as a teacher of writing, do you avoid it?

For one thing, I think that the idea of writing by committee, or learning to write by committee is insanity. It’s just simply insanity. I mean, writing is a
very solitary process. It’s all about being different from everything else—not
the same. So when you’re writing to satisfy the tastes of a group, and
presumably you know those tastes after a while, that’s actually quite dangerous.
One of the things I do when I’m teaching a literature class to MFA students—and
I much prefer teaching a literature class to a writing workshop—is make up a reading list based on masterpieces that would just wither and die in a
workshop setting

Would you advise a young writer to go to an MFA program or would you say that thoughtful reading is a better way to go?

You make lifelong friendships, and you find people who will be your readers long after you’re out of the workshop—people whose voices and opinions you depend on. But that’s quite different from taking everything that every idiot in your class says seriously.
I could comment in agreement on what she's said here, but I'll let her words stand alone.

Her new book is Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them and it's definitely going on my wish list.

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