Read Like a Writer: A Study

Arguing about what is a good book is of course as pointless as trying to find consensus on a favourite dish. Discussing good writing, however, is another thing altogether. I came across a rather mediocre piece lately*, but decided to finish it regardless, and use it for educational purposes. Do note that I would never encourage anyone to read awkwardly written literature, as the world is full of excellent books. So don’t necessarily try the following at home.

Encouraged by the superbly entertaining spy-novel The Vixen, I wanted to read more by Francine Prose and came across Reading Like a Writer. I will be taking some of Prose’s tips from this guide and use novel The Photographer as the exhibit. The following experiment is entirely non-scientific and non-objective.

(* I was ordering something else online, which I obviously don’t usually do exactly because the following always happens: The thing recommends something to add to basket, and The Photographer was hailed as “You (The Netflix series) meets Parasite (the fantastic, award-winning Korean movie,” had a vaguely “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle” -vibe to it, and was supposed to be a psychological thriller combining pin-sharp storytelling with a tantalising build-up of menace.
I take full responsibility for this purchase.)

For context, The Photographer is a story about Delta Dawn, a photographer who is hired to capture the highlights of the lives of New York City’s elite. When Delta is covering the 11th birthday party of Natalie Straub, she sort of loses it and decides she must become part of this family at whatever cost. The book’s blurb says Delta “puts her plan in place”, but what follows is not an execution of any plan, but a confusing string of awkward and fantastical events. Nobody seems to have any control of the characters, the plot or the plan: not Delta, not the Straubs, and most certainly not the author.

The Photographer has a very compact number of characters, only a handful of them, yet we learn nothing about them as people; an interesting choice from an author who’s supposedly writing a psychological thriller. Told in first-person narration by Delta, she offers no explanation for her obsessive behaviour: what drives her? What is she after? Who does she want to get at? What’s her end-game?
At first I though some of Delta’s comical observations were meant to offer a glimpse into her messed up mind, but towards the end of the novel I concluded they had no point whatsoever:
Ian seemed surprised by me. Or maybe taken aback by my appearance. I gathered he wasn’t used to dating women who were as pretty as I was”, and
At the foot of her bed was a blanket that she always rolled into a tight cylinder – an indication that she was tightly wound and might be a loose cannon” and
she arrived at my apartment in blue jeans and a thin almost transparent T-shirt that highlighted her skinniness. It said ‘Normal people scare me’. It was an indication of low self-esteem.”

The plot takes off soon enough, but gets stuck somewhere around page 150, and then it’s treading water for about another 100 pages until everything comes to a rather (fully) predictable, cliché-laced crashing halt and events are hastily wrapped up in the remaining final 15 pages.

Now, to the examples.

Prose: We may recall Chekhov’s remark that the gun we see onstage in an early scene should probably go off by the play’s end.

The Photographer: As the reader of a psychological thriller, I had my senses sharpened for anything that might become menacing or provide a gut-wrenching plot-twist. Early on Delta ventures to the garden apartment of the Straub family’s townhouse and finds out it’s rented to a woman called Gwen. Because this is mentioned in detail, it must be significant. Who is Gwen? As Delta is leaving Gwen’s quarters, she pours a glass of water on the floor so as to make the tenant suspect a leak.
Then we will hear nothing about Gwen, except that Delta regularly goes to her apartment just to pour water on the floor, information that somehow does not reach the landlords at any point. Then suddenly in the very end, when, surprisingly, Delta is moving into the apartment herself, she reminds the reader in brackets about her water-trick “(I already knew Gwen had moved outIn addition to the occasional puddles on the floor, I’d been rearranging her belongings in subtle but unsettling ways)”. In subtle but unsettling ways???
So much for suspense.

When people suggest I switch to audiobooks.

Prose: We remember in detail, we recognise in detail, we identify, we re-create – cops rarely ask eyewitnesses for general or vague descriptions of the perpetrator.

The Photographer: I woke to the sound of my cell phone ringing. It was my former colleague, Lana. She hadn’t called me for three months. For a while she’d been calling every day. She found out I’d slept with the man she was dating. I’d had no idea they were in a relationship. I only saw them together twice. … When Lana discovered what had happened, she said some vile things to me. She called a whore and a parasite. It wasn’t worth my time to fight with someone like her. She projected her dishonesty and disloyalty to other people…. Lana’s call went to voicemail. She rang again and it went to voicemail again.”
This is followed by a long description about the kitchen cabinets in the Straubs’ townhouse, and Lana is never mentioned again. Why did she try to reach Delta multiple times? Why was it important to mention, given that this information brings absolutely nothing to the story? Yes, she might be Delta’s former colleague, but Delta works freelance now?

Prose: Though I’m usually put off by any use of brand names in fiction (it’s a lazy writer’s way of “placing” a character, and nothing can date a work more quickly than a reference to a brand of bed linen that no longer exists) it’s also true that certain consumer choices can communicate a wealth of information.

The Photographer: The author has zero trust in the reader’s ability to get the hints that the Straub family is loaded. No. This must be repeatedly sledgehammered in, first by (over) using the adjective exquisite to describe everything. Everything about the Straub house – and the garden apartment – is exquisite. There’s barely any plot- or character development in the novel, but we do learn that the townhouse kitchen island is topped with Calacatta marble.

Amelia Straub’s seventy-dollar concealer is mentioned twice. Her purple Moncler down jacket gets several mentions. She favours Asics running shoes. In the Straub utility closet there’s a Miele vacuum, a bottle of Fernando Pensato olive oil in the kitchen cupboard. The family drives Mercedes SUV. Delta frequently pulls out her Canon EOS (she also has a Canon DSLR, we find out towards the end).

Prose: Jane Austen rarely used physical gesture; perhaps her attention was so attuned to the shifts in a character’s sensibility that she simply can’t be bothered to lower her gaze and record the silly or pointless self-betrayals that the character’s hands and feet, knees and elbows are performing. … If a gesture is not illuminating, simply leave it out. Do we really need that cigarette lit, that glass of wine poured?

The Photographer: Given it’s a first-person narration, the running commentary of gestures that turn out to be insignificant diminishes any build-up of suspense. There’s an abundance of Fritz checking his watch, Amelie pouring the seltzer, pouring myself a glass of Malbec, Fritz slamming the cabinet, Ian refilling my glass of cabernet, me sipping the cabernet, but very little anything that would have the reader guessing, wondering or suspecting.

Prose: Mediocre writing abounds with physical clichés and stock gestures. They are not descriptions of an individual’s very particular response to a particular event, but rather a shorthand for common psychic states. Writers cover pages with familiar reactions (her heart pounded, he wrung his hands) to familiar situations. But unless what the character does is unexpected or unusual, or truly important to the narrative, the reader will assume that response without having to be told.

The Photographer: There’s a lot of casually throwing out emotions and reactions, but they are used more as props than something that would take the story forward.
I took one of Fritz’s large callused hands and held it in mine. The feeling of his hand in mine calmed my nerves slightly: ‘I understand how you feel’. He looked as though he might have a stroke or a heart attack.”
(What did Fritz look like? Does a person have the same “look” before having either a stroke or a heart attack? Maybe the author could have picked just one?)
My body was vibrating with uncontainable energy.”
He repeated the gesture of running his fingers through his hair. ‘I don’t know where the fuck my wife is’. Fritz was obviously agitated.”

Etc.

The Photographer is a debut novel by a journalist, who’s had a seemingly interesting career so far. I googled a couple of reviews after I’d finished the book, and apparently it was launched with a cover reveal and a merchandise kit and YouTube-trailer and all sorts of bells and whistles. (I didn’t want to appear too harsh with my observations about The Photographer (I have exactly zero published novels to my name), and interestingly some of the reviews pointed out same shortcomings I’m bringing up above.)

I warmly recommend Francine Prose’s excellent Reading Like a Writer if you enjoy literature and reading. It was published in 2006, so well before the current nonsense of both banning classics and/or adding trigger-warnings on them, yet has parts that could be direct jabs at the latest developments: “You can assume that if a writer’s work has survived for centuries, there are reasons why this is so, explanations that have nothing to do with conspiracy of academics plotting to resuscitate a zombie army of dead white males.”

Part of a reader’s job is to find out why certain writers endure. This may require some rewiring, unhooking the connection that makes you think you have to have an opinion about the book and reconnecting that wire to whatever terminal lets you see reading as something that might move or delight you. … It’s essential to slow down and read every word. Because one important thing that can be learned by reading slowly is the seemingly obvious but oddly under-appreciated fact that language is the medium we use in much the same way a composer uses notes, the way painter uses paint. I realise it might seem obvious, but it’s surprising how easily we lose sight of the fact that words are the raw material out of which literature is crafted.

As for whether The Photographer is worthy of your time, well, your call.

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