Why is it that one of the US’s most visible literary critics feigns such a mumbling degree of articulation about books and the basic figures of literary discourse (the difference between fact and fiction)? In the current New York Times Sunday Book Review, sometimes People magazine reviewer Francine Prose spends more than a hundred words alluding to her easily more-than-a-hundred word mumbley exegesis on the difference between fact and fiction. Presumably this is the topic of one her seminars or classes. This does not bode well for her book, Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them.
Here’s my stab at it. Fact is true. Fiction is make-believe. Seven words.
When a writer uses nonfiction, they are constrained by the plausible and the verifiable (even if they cheat). Because the fiction writer can choose anything to tell, anything they do tell raises the question, “Why that red shirt? Why did that tree hit their house?” While the fiction writer isnt constrained by the plausible or verifiable, they are constrained by the fact their language always means more than it says — it least raises this question of why. Of all of things they could do sense they could do anything, why are they doing this?
I suspect that Francine Prose is her real name. I read one of Francine Prose books once but do not remember a thing about it. I looked through a list of her titles, and I couldn’t pick it out in the line up. I do remember Francine Prose’s essay that appeared in Harper’s about five years ago lamenting the middlebrow taste of middle-American school curriculum. Prose retained special loathing for the canonical status of To Kill a Mocking Bird and Lord of the Flied. I was discouraged by her attack, not that it was elitist (who isn’t elitist?), but that it didn’t really take into account the nuances of the reading habits of teenagers. Not everyone is engaged by books. For actual readers, fthey are not going to be satisfied by any standardized curriculum; nor should they be, should they?
These standardized texts were much less about the text and more about developing our skills as readers. We read Lord of the Flies , Fahrenheit 451, the regular Shakespeare unit as practice reading. In the school I attended in the mid-1980s, my teachers still dwelt for the most part in a critical education given to them in the 1960s when New Criticism was such a monolithic given that my instructors didnt think in terms of Feminism, Marxism, Deconstruction, New Historicism, or other forms of criticism. But like the thin layer of the standardized curriculum, I was aware there were other ways of thinking about a text.
As soon as I learned to read, I began to visit my library and the bookstores and I quickly escaped the rigid structures of the school system. I could have used guidance in terms of what to read or how to read what I was reading, but looking back I somehow managed to find my way to a great number of great books without the help of a teacher. I suspect a teacher would only have discouraged me if they had deigned to interfere with my reading habits anyway. I did read a tremendous number of Robert H. Howard novels, but also read a great deal of classic science fiction. I stayed clear of anything smacking of anything I might read in school because I had a sense I was supposed to read these things. I never wanted to do anything I was supposed to do. When I talk to people about what they read, they read what they read. What is taught in school is kind of beside the point when it comes to reading.
I have not read enough of Francine Prose to really have any opinion of her work or her criticism, but I am suspicious when someone who clearly knows something pretends that it is more complicated than it is.