I was first introduced to novelist and literary critic Francine Prose through her essay collection Reading Like a Writer, so I was intrigued when I found out she had a new collection coming out, What to Read and Why. While the collection has some real gems about Little Women and Vladimir Nabokov and pornography, and Jane Austen, there are a fair amount of essays about very niche books or authors I’d never even heard of that were hard to fall into as easily.
The content of this essay collection range the classics to more modern works, such as:
- Jane Austen
- Great Expectation
- Little Women
- Lolita and Pornography vs The Erotic
- Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan
- Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
- What Makes a Short Story
The essays on Jane Austen and Little Women were interesting, but I don’t think they were anything I hadn’t read before. The essay on Lolita and the differences between pornography and the erotic was absolutely fascinating though. I loved Lolita when I read it for my class, Midcentury Queer Writing, and it’s so haunting and yet beautifully written. But even though it’s controversial, no one would call it pornographic. Some of the scenes are erotic, sure, but Francine Prose explores the differences between what is pornography and what is erotic and how pornography is an instruction manual while erotic writing is about style. It was a wholly original essay and a great read since I was very familiar with Lolita.
I had trouble getting into the essays for authors/books I’d never heard of, but the essay on Gitta Sereny’s The Cries Unheard: Story of Mary Bell gripped me. It’s a true crime meets psychological evaluation book about a famous woman who committed two murders as a child and later went on to be a mother herself, reflecting on how she got to be that little girl and how she grew out of it. I haven’t read the book but Francine Prose really made me want to. She sold the book.
If you like literary criticism and thinking more deeply about the books you’re reading or want to discover new books and authors this essay collection is a great start. It can be cerebral at parts but it has some great essays. Maybe just pick out the ones you can relate to more realistically.