Despite the popular tolling of the novel’s death knell, former Booker prize chair John Sutherland has decided to put together a populist user’s guide to reading a novel in the 21st century. What he has created in How to Read a Novel is a clever book, assuredly for someone who is interested in literature, but who has perhaps managed to get through life thus far without suffering a single English 101 course.
Sutherland’s primary assumption is that in the contemporary world there are too many choices to make (10,000 new novels a year, he says) and that his guide will help readers figure out just what they’re supposed to do with all these books. Though there are several vignettes here that are well worth reading, I would argue that this is a beginner’s text: we never learn where or how to suss out patterns in a book, how to pick up on the themes (Nabokov cringes in his grave), the basic rundown from Modernism to Postmodernism, what the difference is between, say, magical realism and K-Mart realism, or how to understand the basic ideas behind a book.
Sutherland is a bright guy, a man who presided over one of the more controversial Booker prizes in recent history (more on this later) and a literature professor at University College London. He is one of the appallingly few “real” critics who has genuinely embraced technology, frequenting writing for the Guardian’s excellent blog. He is, however, not largely inclined to take up the popular critic reins from Matthew Arnold, who wrote that “the confusion of the present times is great, the multitude of voices counseling different things bewildering, the number of existing works capable of attracting a young writer’s attention and of becoming his models, immense: what he wants is a hand to guide him through the confusion.” Rather, Sutherland is interested in talking about how many novels there are, how we can tell one genre from another (the quality of the writing, though he doesn’t say this explicitly), what the reader can glean from the title, whether to buy paperback or hardcover, and what it means for a novel to win a prize. He doesn’t so much guide the reader to a specific kind of book as inform the reader of all the kinds of choices she has before her.
The first chapter of the book ends with the line, “if you want to know the overall health of a society, look at the quality of the books it is currently consuming.” A quick glance at the New York Times Bestseller List gives us Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo at number 6 and Roth’s Exit Ghost at 12. Before, after, and in between are 18 novels of mediocre to very bad quality. Judging by this list, it would seem that American culture is on its deathbed. However, Sutherland doesn’t pass judgment on contemporary publishing; he doesn’t even note the current bestseller lists at the time of printing, which is unfortunate, because it’s an interesting opportunity for a well-read guy with diverse tastes (throughout, allusions to James Bond and pulp fiction mix with “higher” literary allusions) to really explore how an educated person can like both Bond and Maugham.
Sutherland is at his best when he is, essentially, relating the collected knowledge of his 60-plus years of reading. There is a ton of information here that even a fairly experienced reader might not know”the hardbacked (often ornately bound) three-volume novel cost, from the 1830s until the 1890s, an outrageous guinea and a halfequivalent to about 80£ in current value.” Sprinkled throughout the book, these interesting little notes are more interesting than many of the suggestions Sutherland centers his chapters around. The chapter on intertextuality is the best in the book. In it, Sutherland connects the Odyssey, Ulysses, Iris Murdoch’s, The Sea, the Sea, and John Banville’s 2005 Booker winner, The Sea. Banville’s title, which refers to Murdoch’s celebrated book about loneliness, is connected to Joyce’s great work twofold: Murdoch’s title is in reference to a line Joyce has quoted from Homer’s Odyssey, “Thalatta! Thalatta! The Sea, the sea!” With his title, Banville is just “intertextually, paying his dues.” This is, put mildly, pretty great. It would have been greater yet to see Sutherland expand on this potentially lucrative convergence.
Closely following Sutherland’s take on intertextuality is his discussion of the controversy surrounding the 2005 Man Booker Prize. For those who can’t bother to recall, this revolved around Banville (the winner) savagely reviewing Ian McEwan’s Booker-nominated Saturday. Perhaps it’s telling, though that Sutherland’s tale, albeit interesting, has no bearing on the overall course of this book. Perhaps also telling is that by placing McEwan’s and Banville’s petulance over a close reading of their texts, Sutherland has, probably unintentionally, scared readers from delving into their offerings.
Sutherland is obviously a bright guy, and How to Read a Novel is, in many instances, an interesting book. There’s a lot of to learn herehow author photographs came about (in the 1860s), the history of scandalous fictions (going as far back as Aphra Behn!), and how Tolstoy and Austen use ironic first sentences to set up the rest of their respective novels. Overall, though, the book is disappointing: so many chapters in this book feel clipped; so many ideas unworthy of elaboration go on for pages. In the end, Sutherland’s book feels more like a hodgepodge than a serious approach to the question of reading a novel.
John Harrison lives and reads in Maine.
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