"Sooner or later some such book as this had to be written…" said Basil Hogarth in The Technique of Novel Writing, published in 1934 – possibly the first in what is now a Babel tower of creative writing manuals available to new writers. Most of what is on offer falls into three broad categories: works by academics seeking to treat the creative process with the same level of intellectual rigour given to other forms of analysis, such as David Lodge's The Art of Fiction; write-your-bestseller books, such as Carole Blake's From Pitch to Publication; and chirpy, exercise-based books full of practical anecdote for the newcomer: mea culpa.
In such a bulging field, it is remarkable that there is any gap in the market, but an acerbic American novelist with the improbably suitable name of Francine Prose has found it and filled it. Reading Like a Writer is a clarion call for aspiring writers to do that most simple, time-consuming but enjoyable thing: their homework. Doctors go to medical school, barristers train at the bar: novelists may or may not choose a creative writing course but reading is the one training tool they can't do without. It's a case Prose makes with such vigour as to make this an essential book for any writer, new or experienced, who purports to take his or herself remotely seriously.
Like most authors, Prose has been an avid reader since childhood: "On one family vacation, my father pleaded with me to close my book long enough to look at the Grand Canyon." She read broadly and widely, everything from Carlos Castaneda ("Mary Poppins for people who had outgrown the flying nanny") to Sophocles. It's a habit she has continued throughout her own life as a novelist and teacher of literature and she expresses bafflement at writers who decline to read when they are working on their own book, "for fear that Tolstoy or Shakespeare might influence them. I've always hoped they would."
The point about learning from great writers is well made but if there is fault in this excellent book, it is in Prose's anxiety to defend The Canon. "If a writer's work has survived for centuries, there are reasons why this is so, explanations that have nothing to do with a conspiracy of academics plotting to resuscitate a zombie army of dead white males." Many a writer who happens to be alive, female or brown – or, God forbid, all three – might note that there is hardly a need for much resuscitation.
Prose's defensiveness on this point is probably explained by her experience of teaching on American campuses, where the battle lines are much more sharply drawn than here. Nonetheless, she occasionally appears to be giving writers credit just for being famous: she admiringly quotes a passage full of sentence fragments from American Pastoral by Philip Roth, but later says new writers should pay more attention to grammar. If you're the kind of reader who finds sentence fragments irritating, then they are just as irritating when Roth does it as when your most pretentious student copies him.
Where this book really takes off is with Prose's quite brilliant analysis of the power of detail in fiction. Turning to Kafka, she unpicks the famous opening of The Metamorphosis to show us that what makes us believe that Gregor Samsa really has turned into an insect is not the description of his armour-plated back but the picture that he has hung on his wall, of a lady in a fur stole. "Believing in this picture, we begin to believe in Samsa and in the possibility that he could turn into a bug." It is the ordinary that makes us believe the impossible. This calls to mind Elizabeth Bowen's observation: "The novel lies, in saying that something happened that did not. It must, therefore, contain uncontradictable truth, to warrant the original lie." A few pages later, Prose nails why cliched descriptions are so hopeless at conveying experience, explaining, for instance, why the sentence "Tom bit his lip" is a pointless banality.
Above all, Prose's forthright, waspish and often very funny book is a plea to all writers for vigour and clarity, one which encourages them to tend to the details of technique, and the mastery of language, as closely as they tend to their own ambition. It demands that they love literature as much as they want the literary world to love them – an exhortation many published as well as unpublished writers would do well to heed. Reading Like a Writer makes it clear just how much work is involved in being a writer before, during and after the formulation of a sentence, and that's a point that can't be made often enough.