In praise of Prose

Francine Prose reading from her manifesto, 'Reading like a Writer'

In a literary age dominated by absurdists, genre benders, hysterical realists, and post-modern transgressives, Francine Prose quietly goes about her business within the great tradition of the novel, coming out every year or so with a new book that unravels human complexities by telling an interesting story about them.

Writing in Commentary Magazine, critic and scholar D.G. Myers suggests Prose’s novels often appeal to the longing for worlds that are abundant with character and incident, in the company of people whose conscience is nearly as fierce as their passions. In this way, her fiction is very much in the spirit of George Eliot, says Myers.

Although she has received far less critical attention and praise than other novelists of her generation (Marilynne Robinson, Richard Ford, Jane Smiley, or Richard Russo), and though she has never received the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, or even the Orange Prize for fiction by a woman, Francine Prose has produced a body of work that, taken as a whole, is without peer in contemporary American fiction.

Perhaps the problem is that her novels are as unassuming as her surname. Prose rarely resorts to what Rebecca West calls the “flash of phrase.” Her writing is exacting but not labored. And it is placed entirely at the service of narrative: it draws attention not to herself and how clever and quotable she can be but rather to her people.

After nearly 4 decades as a professional novelist—and almost as long as a professor of creative writing—Prose, suggests Myers, has emerged as the foremost public advocate of contemporary literature’s return to literary tradition. In 2006 she published a manifesto called Reading Like a Writer to plead for the close study of literary masterpieces as a “companion, if not an alternative, to the writing workshop.” Great writers, she said,

… are the teachers to whom I go, the authorities I consult, the models that still help to inspire me with the energy and courage it takes to sit down at a desk each day and resume the process of learning, anew, to write.

Read the full essay at Commentary Magazine …