"Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth." So begins, with lasciviously lapidary, lusciously languid language, Vladimir Nabokov's once-shocking novel Lolita, first published in this country 58 years ago.
Novels are stories; Nabokov insisted that any work of literature is really a fairytale that begins "Once upon a time." Stories are sequences of words. Words are sequences of meaningful sounds, arranged, if by someone with skill, to have even more meaning. And sounds are what most humans make from the moment of birth, so that, by extension, it can be argued that we're born storytellers.
That may be, but Roy Peter Clark, senior scholar at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg (which owns the Tampa Bay Times), also knows that storytellers are made, trained, shaped. A writing teacher of much repute, he opens his latest book, The Art of X-Ray Reading, with the suggestion that good writers, like a certain superhero of yore, are possessed of a kind of sixth-sense ability that he calls "X-ray reading," one that "allows them to see beneath the surface of the text."
It's a commonplace that in order to be a good writer you must be a good reader, but Clark takes that "good" to include the ability to see how a literary text works, to identify and understand "the moving parts, the strategies that create the effects we experience from the page, effects such as clarity, suspense, humor, epiphany, or pain." Learn enough about these parts and strategies by way of this X-ray reading, he ventures, and you have not just the skills of a good reader but also the insights of a good writer—and the ability to see what's going on behind the curtain.
An editor of Clark's calls the technique "undressing Gatsby," and indeed F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Great Gatsby is one of the 25 classics (or, in some cases, classics in the making) that Clark looks into in this lively book — a textbook, to be sure, but by no means of an arid sort. What he finds when he peeks beneath the hood are, first, sounds: the bilabial plosive "p" mashed up against the velar fricative "k" in the name of T. S. Eliot's hapless hero J. Alfred Prufrock, the onrushing monosyllables of Shakespeare's "The Queen, my lord, is dead."
Then there is syntax, a word no aspiring writer should fear, even if it smacks of high school grammar classes. The gap between subject and verb in that line from Macbeth, Clark sagely observes, yields "a nanosecond of suspense." And then there is economy: each word is needed, not one is wasted.
And each word is just the right one. Flaubert's le mot juste, "the right word," is one of the slipperiest things to grasp in this X-ray reading, since sometimes getting to those right words and putting them in the right order seems to be a kind of magic. To help us understand word choice, Clark begins with one of the most daunting literary works of all, James Joyce's Ulysses. There sounds produce words and words conjure images, images that trigger associations that sweep us into the story — which is just what the storyteller means to do, whether the tale is a simple or a difficult one.
Clark doesn't spend much time in the lands of allegory, symbolism, allusion, the usual stuff of literature courses. His approach is much more nuts and bolts than all that, and it seems just right: A beginning medical student learns anatomy through dissection down to the capillary level, and a beginning writer learns to conjure phrases such as Fitzgerald's "boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past" by understanding from the ground up how sound and meaning combine.
It's possible to quibble with a few of Clark's choices. Is Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch objectively better than Stephen King's The Shining? King brings as many chops to the job as Tartt, and he's a lot more fun to read even as his work repays scrutiny via the techniques of X-ray reading. David Foster Wallace is revered now, but will he last as long as Dickens? Is it advisable even to mention The Da Vinci Code in a book devoted to serious writing?
"Look at this tangle of thorns," Nabokov demands at the very beginning of Lolita. Clark offers fine strategies for getting through the briar patch unpunctured. Every page of his book brings new insight into the fact that every good book is "exquisitely and finely wrought," the product of conscious choice, good will, and energy. It's a pleasure to read, and a pleasure to learn from.
Gregory McNamee is a writer and editor in Tucson, Ariz.