Friday, 15 February 2008

How to Read a Novel: A User's Guide by John Sutherland, and How Novels Work by John Mullan

These two books were written by men who coincidentally are or have been Professors of English Literature at University College London. I read them in quick succession, and they provide an interesting contrast.

How to Read a Novel seems to be a condensation of a lifetime's experience of reading, studying and teaching fiction. The author covers a wide field in many short and easily digestible chapters, including a brief history of fiction, a discussion of why such an ancient medium as a bound paper book should remain so popular in the electronic age, hardbacks vs paperbacks, knowing your taste, the value of browsing in a bookshop, titles, blurbs, covers, reviews and recommendations, prize novels, TV and film adaptations, and the impact of the internet. He discusses the way in which stories by different authors are interlinked, often referring to each other in oblique ways, and illustrates the points he makes with many short extracts from novels.

Unlike many literati, the author is refreshingly open-minded about his subject and not afraid to admit to reading the occasional airport blockbuster as well as the classics. He includes a chapter on genre fiction in which he spends some time discussing SF and fantasy. There isn't space for him to do more than pick out a few examples, but he covers the range from Mary Shelley and some other early practitioners (but not, curiously, Jules Verne) through to modern writers. He focuses in particular on describing Robert Jordan's 'Wheel of Time' fantasy series, which he takes as an exemplar of current trends. Even graphic novels get a mention.

I originally bought this book thinking that it would provide some kind of analysis of what makes novels successful, from which I might usefully pick up some tips for my own writing. In fact, this work is not as directly useful as that. Nonetheless, it is an interesting read and worth the modest time spent on it.

In contrast, How Novels Work takes a much more systematic approach to analysing stories. The eleven chapters cover Beginning, Narrating, People, Genre, Voices, Structure, Detail, Style, Devices, Literariness, and Ending. Each is broken down into topics, for instance 'Narrating' includes First-Person Narration, Recollection, The Inadequate Narrator (not a criticism; an approach), A Man Writing as a Woman, Multiple Narrators, Skaz (colloquial writing, more closely resembling speech), The Self-Conscious Novel, Addressing the Reader, The Omniscient Narrator, Point of View, Tense, Tense Shift, and Free Indirect Style.

Throughout the book, the points being made are illustrated by extracts from novels, frequently contrasting the approach in older books with that of modern works. One downside is that Mullen takes a more highbrow approach than Sutherland, focusing only on the classics like Jane Austen and the kind of modern novel which gets on the list for the Booker Prize. Science Fiction and Fantasy scarcely get a mention, even in the Genre chapter, the closest being a brief section on 'Magical Realism' which concerns authors like Salman Rushdie and Gabriel García Márquez.

That doesn't mean that the book is a difficult or irrelevant read, though. The author is critical of the kind of arid textual analysis which has become popular in universities and which tends to ignore such matters as characterisation. He focuses very much on what makes a novel work for the reader, and in so doing passes on a huge number of useful ideas to the writer. Definitely a book I am likely to be returning to, as a guide and reference.


Terry Finley said...

I never thought about writing a book on reading novels. Pretty good.

Terry Finley

Anthony G Williams said...

Yep, think of virtually any subject you like and the chances are that someone has written a book on it. A consequence of the Information Age!