In Praise of Prose
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. 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. Here, for example, is the first conversation between Swenson, a writing professor, and his student Angela Argo in Blue Angel (2000), arguably Prose’s best book. Angela, who will lead the professor to destruction, like Lola Lola in Josef von Sternberg’s 1930 film The Blue Angel, is no Marlene Dietrich. A “leather-jacketed toothpick” with green-and-orange-streaked hair, she is sitting in the hallway outside his office, grasping a copy of Jane Eyre “with talons lacquered eggplant purple, curling from fingerless black leather gloves studded with silver grommets.” Swenson asks:
About the Author
D.?G. Myers, English professor at Texas A&M, writes the Commonplace Blog (dgmyers.blogspot.com). He last wrote for us about Lionel Trilling.