Reading like a writer: Francesca Kay

Starting our new Writers’ Room series, Reading like a Writer, Francesca Kay, author of The Long Room, considers how fiction writers might approach a book differently to other readers – and focuses on five female novelists whose writing has influenced her own.


Is there a distinction to be made between the ways in which a writer reads and other readers do? Probably not in general, or not all the time. Writers read as every reader reads, for a variety of reasons: for pleasure, for distraction, out of duty, or in search of information. We read on beaches if we’re lucky, on commuter trains, in waiting-rooms, in libraries, in a hurry if we’re late with a deadline or review. And in any case, most readers are writers too, if not of published books, then of letters, lists, diary-entries, emails, answers to questions in exams.

But it’s a different matter when it comes to writers of fiction reading fiction, I would say. Novelists read as aircraft engineers fly in planes of rival design: hoping to enjoy the ride, feeling no responsibility for it, but always keeping a watchful eye – together with an ear – on what is going on.

That’s because fiction, unlike other forms of sustained prose, is created almost entirely out of the author’s own material: observation, experience of language and of life, and imagination. Nothing else holds it up. It can’t be pieced together with verifiable facts. These can go into the manufacture but they won’t keep the whole thing airborne. Other writers’ images, ideas and words, may help with the design but if they protrude too obviously through the skin, they’ll drag the creation down. That’s the thing about good fiction: it’s difficult to write, it’s made-up, and no one novel is the same as any other.

Writing fiction is an Icarus-act, a lonely act of hubris and of daring. And so there is solidarity, as well as instruction, in watching how another writer gives their fiction wings and keeps it flying, rather than leaving it to crash to pieces on the ground. The critical question here (the engineers’ question) is: what makes it work? Or conversely, and less happily, why doesn’t it?

Five female writers to read – and re-read

Photo of Virginia Woolf in 1902
Virginia Woolf

In a long life of reading, I’ve been dazzled by many writers – far too many to list. But here I’d like to pay homage to a handful of extraordinary women whose work I’ve been reading and re-reading lately, and who span between them a whole century – Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Bowen, Elizabeth Taylor, Penelope Fitzgerald and Elena Ferrante. 

The first four have written novels that have magnificently stood the test of time, and I am sure that Ferrante’s work will too. It would take thousands of words to analyse the reasons why, and to do justice to these writers, but in brief what they all share, I think, is a complete commitment to the internal logic of the characters in each book. They keep faith with their imagined worlds.

The nuts and bolts of writing

The nuts and bolts of writing – the language, the imagery, the voice, the plot, the viewpoint – are obviously crucial to a novel but they form its structure, not its function or purpose.  To put it another way: why write a work of fiction rather than of fact?  Why make things up?  And an answer is that fiction offers an ideal way to ask the essential questions:  how to keep loving, what to believe, how to survive, how to die, and how to live; and it does so by embodying them in real people.  Or, rather, people who are imaginary but who seem entirely real to readers, if the writer is skilled enough.  People whose lives may be a million miles or a thousand years away from the reader’s own experience, but when encountered in the pages of a novel will expand that experience, and increase the range of feeling. 

A novel can suggest answers that are elliptical and gentle; not necessarily assertive, didactic or self-referential.  They’re there for the taking, if the reader wants them.

The art of detail

It follows then that creating characters who live beyond the page is central to the art of writing fiction. And to live they have to be both credible as individuals and at the same time emblematic or representative in ways that enable a sense of recognition in a reader. It is a sort of genius – the genius of painters such as Chardin or Zurbaran too – to make the particular universal.  The novelists that I have mentioned do that brilliantly.  Like those painters they know how to choose and to depict exactly the right details that will give solidity and significance to the people of their stories and their worlds.

Detail illuminates and defines both character and plot. Too much of it makes a muddle; too little a mere sketch. But the right amount in the right words (‘the best words in the best order’) is devastatingly effective. Think of Mr Ramsey stumbling along a passage with his arms stretched out in To the Lighthouse, or the Bernhard falling between the boats in Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower, or Bowen’s nine-year old Leopold in The House in Paris weeping against the marble of a mantelpiece when he learns that his mother isn’t coming back for him, or the child laying cold coins on her feverish brother’s forehead in Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment.

Elizabeth Taylor: making the narrow world universal

The most everyday of actions can be rendered full of meaning.  Elizabeth Taylor is the under-sung writer of my five, often dismissed for confining herself to middle-class life in the Home Counties. And yet she made of that apparently narrow world something universal; in the words of Elizabeth Jane Howard, she really understood the ‘subtle paradox of the ordinary and the unique’.

Novelist Elizabeth Taylor
Novelist Elizabeth Taylor

Here, for instance, is Harriet, in A Game of Hide and Seek, whitening with ‘an extreme tension of love, with a momentary awareness of [Vesey’s] personality so sharp that her own seemed to be nothing’ as she watches Vesey – eighteen years old and hiding his uncertainties beneath an air of arrogance, cutting up a lamb chop he has ordered in a café for a child ‘whose elbows are sticking up like wings’ and who can’t manage it by himself.  But Vesey knows that child is a vegetarian; the act of ordering meat for him is deliberately transgressive; and Harriet discovers that “tenderness and cruelty can inhabit the same person”.

Showing that people – and love – are complicated, paradoxical, and never one-dimensional is the business of the novel.  And although novelists may feel the need to look closely at the workings, in the end we all read because the best fiction makes life vivid.

Buy Francesca Kay’s The Long Room, now available in paperback.

Author photo of Francesca KayFrancesca Kay’s first novel, An Equal Stillness, won the Orange Award for New Writers and was nominated for the Authors’ Club First Novel Award and for Best First Book in the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (Europe and South Asia Region). Her second novel, The Translation of the Bones, was longlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction. She lives in Oxford.