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November 09, 2006

Reading about reading: How to Read a Novel: A User's Guide - John Sutherland

Posted by A S H Smyth

How to Read a Novel: A User's Guide
by John Sutherland
London: Profile Books, 2006
Hardback, £9.99

90% of everything is crap.
So says Theodore Sturgeon, the late sci-fi author and model for Kurt Vonnegut's Kilgore Trout.

The publishing world, for my money, is no exception. And I was delighted to find that Carol Midgley wholeheartedly agrees. In her Bargainhunter column [The Times Magazine, November 4th], she takes great delight in recounting the Glasgow book-signing at which Paul Burrell recently attempted to punt his latest gossip-volume. It was attended by a crowd of five, one of whom was a student honouring a dare.

As Midgley rightly remarks:

People who don't normally write books are selling millions of pounds worth of books to people who don't normally read books. There ought to be something encouraging in this. But somehow there isn't.
I recently attended an editorial lunch hosted by Prospect magazine. For some reason the conversation came round to publishing, and someone warmed the cockles of my black heart with the revelation that Wayne Rooney's publishers have lost about £5m on his "autobiography", and that Ashely Cole's volume has only sold 3000 copies. I remarked to the lady next to me:
Splendid, perhaps now they'll stop publishing the ghastly outpourings of these cretins.
Or something equally egalitarian and sympathetic.

It turns out my voice isn't as inaudibly low as I'd thought. And the man who set me straight (citing obvious publishing economics) looked a lot like Hannibal Lecter, so I blushed a bit and let the matter rest. But I got off lightly, since the one man who has already explained all this (and in highly-enjoyable, economics-lite prose) was sitting only three seats down. Either he didn't hear, or he was kind enough not to put me in my place then and there. But he could easily have said "Callow youth, read my book", and all would have been revealed - for he was none other than John Sutherland, as I twigged (too late!) when his publisher sent me a copy of How to Read a Novel: A User's Guide.

His answer: mass-market trash subsidises good literature (since only two in five books make a profit), enabling the publication of potentially loss-making quality works of the kind that I might actually want to read. It's like the frozen meals for one at TESCO, sales of which (whatever I may think of them) help cut the price of my beloved South African Shiraz (whatever you may think of it). The same goes for the enormous cost of hardbacks, which subsidise publishing in general.

For years I have been wanting someone to tell me that there is a smart way to read, and a wrong way to read. Y'know, to make me feel superior from the grannies in the library who only read Jilly Cooper. Granted, Sutherland shies from ploughing this vulgar furrow, upholding Virginia Woolf's contention that there is no right method, no "correct reading".

But that's a case-by-case, book-by-book view. We are not stuck with only one answer to the riddles of each fiction (something Sutherland has covered in detail in his other books):

a good reader (or "user") of good fiction will read (use) the same novel in a uniquely different way from every other good reader - and, potentially, just as well.
But look again at that quotation, and see the qualifications: "good", "good", "good" and "potentially". As the very existence of How to Read a Novel attests, he knows there are right ways to go about the habit of reading… and thus wrong ways, too.

In parts I felt there was too much ducking and weaving on this topic. It's a little unsettling, as though Sutherland realises it's not wise in 2006 to condemn a vast swathe of your potential audience as thickos. It's a very contemporary version of academia that says:

How to read a novel? Well, however you want, really.
It could be said that this is typical of a current non-fiction publishing style (employed by Francis Fukuyama and others), in which the title is rather more punchy than the answer provided. What is the purpose of this book, if the answer is "there's no right way to read (a novel)"? Well, cynicism aside, the book covers plenty more topics than reading. To reach for a moment into the stomach-turning depths of literary nonsense, Sutherland is telling us that we have to treat the whole process (and not just the text) as a "text". This is a book about which books you read, how you read them and why - all of which, I grant, is important. But it's not what most bibliophiles would automatically expect if you offered them advice on "reading" a novel.

Topics covered include: choosing a book; public libraries and their importance, especially their post-war boost to innovative publishing, which "3 for 2" can't match; font, size and other printing conventions (why don't we write in the margins? It's what they’re for…); marketing gimmicks; film/TV adaptations; blurbs and shoutlines (he puts his own on the back, and then advises you to keep your hand on your wallet); and, yes, even a section on reviews.

There is also an excellent section on Lady Chatterley and the beginning of the end for outraging literature. Beyond Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, it is very difficult to recall a book which caused serious controversy in recent times. The same debate might now be had over films. Take special effects (SFX, for the CGI nerds), for example: it is very difficult for someone of my generation - call it the Matrix generation - to remember or imagine how impressive the original Star Wars movie must have looked in the late '70s, rather than to focus on how dated it seems now. Jurassic Park, likewise, is already looking thin in places. How will we view the breath-taking Matrix trilogy ten years from now? Or The Lord of the Rings?

In general, what Sutherland is trying to warn us against is the assumption that simply seeing all the words on the page, and churning through lots of books, is sufficient to qualify us as good readers.

But why - one might ask - is it important to be a "good" reader, anyway? Because (Sutherland cites Paul Auster):

it's the reader who writes the book and not the writer.
So you must read each novel with all the skill and respect with which you'd hope it was written. Vonnegut had a similar view:
fiction is a game for two. You have to make it possible for a reader to play along.
In short, the novel is not finished simply because the author has put his pen down.

How to Read a Novel is well-conceived. The format is smart, telescoping from the distant view of novels (the genre, the industry) right in close to the page at hand. Sutherland is not a preachy academic. He has a popular appeal, which extends even to touting The Book People, a company I happen to think are unbeatable (if you have no charity shop nearby and don't want anything remotely unusual). And most importantly he has a relaxed writing style, which is always good and especially so with potentially stodgy themes like secondary literature. He is friendly, too, and mischievous, as when he suggests Michael Houllebecq's publishers should be prosecuted under the Trades Description Act for Atomised, a deeply French, existentialist work which sold millions in the English translation, assisted (maybe, maybe) by the semi-clad girl on the front cover.

The book reads as though Sutherland is explaining the theme to you in his front room. He realises that he is talking to lay persons: folk, that is, who are not employed as academics, and have to fit their reading into "free" time:

It is not that life is too short to read carefully: the task is too great to be done attentively.
In many respects the book is really about how to manage one's minimal reading time in the hurried modern age. If 90% of everything - literature included - is crap, then we need some help to find the remaining 10%. Using a favoured bovine metaphor, Sutherland reminds us that the term "browsing" originally comes from the activity of cows, wandering through fields and trying to find the rare mouthfuls of good stuff amongst the ubiquitous piles of turd.

At this point, I do feel he underestimates the links between physical browsing and e-browsing (on Amazon, for example): but I'd like to come back to that some other time.

I was sold on the book as soon as I saw the still from the "Ezekiel 25:17" scene in Pulp Fiction. An academic who watches (good) films? A literature academic? Hell, yes. And bravo. A wise old bird with sound topical references is just what the literary world needs: especially one who can balance his act without descending into patronising mundanity and lowest-common-denominator populism. Of course, it would have been nice if he'd trusted his audience (or, rather, felt able to trust them) enough not to have to say who directed that movie, or who plays Vince and Jules. But there it is. You can only push things so far, I guess.

Sutherland's basic tenets are that novels are to be enjoyed and that better reading leads to greater enjoyment (which I would not restrict to novels, but he does). Reading books properly, he says, is an art akin to writing them well in the first place. And so back to Paul Auster.

Reading fiction makes you a better fiction-reader, on the grounds of inter-textual understanding, which - it is implied - permeates every author's work, too. I'm not entirely at peace with this idea; but I do believe him. I read very little fiction, and it becomes a vicious circle: the less I read, the less I am capable of enjoying it enough to want to read more.

With this, as with the other bits of the book I found uncomfortable, the fault is mine for not being sufficiently devoted to the fiction genre.

Perhaps How to Read a Novel is aimed at someone completely different from me. How long could we spend on the irony that fiction devotees are less likely to read this book than non-fiction readers, who lack the necessary frames of reference for a non-fiction book about fiction?

Certainly, Sutherland is talking to someone who reads more fiction, and - it seems - some who reads a hell of a lot faster than I do. He reckons an average novel gives "five hours' pleasure" (maybe it's a very average novel he has in mind!).

But the point wasn't really brought home to me until his "four-minute history" of fiction took me 15 minutes to read. Now, I read carefully. Perhaps even cautiously. But this 4:15 ratio proves that the difference is not merely in our choice of reading matter.

Basic reading speed aside, there is the element of time spent thinking (which, I flatter myself, is a factor when I read). And if I think about a novel in all the ways Sutherland wants me to, it's going to make my reading even slower, my consumption of fiction even more limited. This is not, of course, what he has in mind; I imagine he imagines that I will become quicker as well as qualitatively better at reading fiction. But that's not how it will play out, I fear.

He puts forward one major idea that I don't like: that you need to know about the author in order to (fully) understand the book - unhelpful, of course, if the author uses a pseudonym. He also suggests you have to know the setting (Hardy's Wessex for example). This is demanding stuff for the majority of us who – unlike Sutherland – are not financially remunerated for our literary enthusiasm.

We also disagree strongly on the very minor issue of cracking the spine of a new book. I am a Folio edition kind of chap (or would be, if I could afford the habit). But the photo of his copy of Saturday is creased down the glue-line under the front cover. My books - unless second hand to begin with - never look like that: they go back on the shelf looking the way they looked when they came out of the shop. Especially if (as per the advice in How to Read a Novel) I've forked out for the aesthetic joys of a hardback. Hardbacks are - at least in my mind - a gesture of veneration, either to the writer or to books in general: at three times the price of the paperback, they have to have some greater significance. But few share this view. To return to Carol Midgley's column:

I recently interviewed a highly respected author and asked whether he had yet bought the excellent memoirs of another highly respected author. "Have I buggery," he replied "I'm waiting for it to come out in paperback."
But why should all of this matter, beyond the point of simply enjoying a novel on the train or on the loo? Because, Sutherland argues, choosing one's reading (the first stage of reading properly)
is as basic a civic freedom as choosing one's political party, and as much to be cherished.
So we should not be fooled by book charts - which generate sales as much as record them - or encouraged (by them) to read what everyone else on the tube is reading.

In a section I particularly relished, Sutherland sticks it to the Metrodrones who read the Da Vinci Code, or Harry Potter. Not for the quality of the reading experience (though I reckon we can assume he is not a fan of Dan Brown), but because many millions of those who read these books didn't actually choose to read them. Not by Sutherland's definition, anyway. He admits we're buried under an avalanche of literature (an alternative title for How to Read a Novel), and actually overwhelmed by choice. But those who read the Da Vinci Code were sucked in by slick marketing or peer pressure of a sort. Unless you were in the first half-million readers, the only choice you could really make was not to read it.

How to Read a Novel is not a spiteful book in any respect, but it's fun to look out for authors who Sutherland (a former judge of many distinguished literary prizes) obviously thinks are rubbish. The names of Georgette Heyer, Herman Wouk, Dick Francis, Jeffrey Archer, and Dan Brown make appearances. It's hardly a radical hit-list, but it's nice to see a proper thinker drawing attention to literary dross. And he does so not merely to spike their literary posturing, but to sound a warning to those who read this stuff: "they chew the cud" he says of unimaginative and undemanding Anglo-American readers, returning to the bovine theme.

Reaching conclusions on literature

is less an act of judgement than one of self-definition.
Like making a compilation CD for a friend: it reflects you more than anything (allowing for an average level of selfishness), and you resent it deeply if it receives a less-than-rapturous response. You are what you listen to. And you are, says Sutherland, what you read.

It boils down to this: de gustibus non est disputandum. We all know our tastes, he says, and should not try to wage war against them. If you are what you read, then you are also, logically, whatever section of the bookshop you naturally find yourself in. Stick to your guns. Don't read this week's Richard and Judy paperback. Choose your own books and

at the very least, you will make your own mistakes.
This is surely a cherished freedom for even the most modest intellectual.

Also, he argues:

the novel does… still have a socio-educational value…. Fiction can make us better, or at least better informed citizens.
In the light of my paltry novel-reading, I find this defence of their relevance very refreshing, even if he does base it rather too heavily on sci-fi works (which don't occupy much space on my Amazon "wish list").

In this regard Sutherland refers specifically to novels because they are more precisely relevant to our time and culture than histories, poems or any other form. Not just in their content or style, but because the manufacture, distribution and marketing of novels are reliant, essentially, on western living:

The novel is the product of a developed, institutionalised and commercially advanced social culture. The ability to read a novel intelligently… is the mark of a mature personal culture. Both have happened very late in world history.
"Modern society" - according to Orwell, according to Sutherland:
has no better generator of intelligent sympathy than the novel, and no more efficient dissipater of prejudice.
I'm not sure I have so much faith in the latter… and the first is reliant on an intelligent readership in the first place: hardly a given, especially where mass-market fiction is concerned. But there must be a grain of truth in the assumption that novels have some socio-political impact: they are, after all, more censored by governments than any other form of literature.

In this book about book-loving to be loved by book-lovers, Sutherland half-jokingly concludes that no-one can tell you what to read. What you need to work out for yourself is what you want to read, and why, and what you expect from it. But it's a pleasingly ironic ending, given that the readers of this book about books will very likely not be the ones who need much guidance. Anyone that stuck for reading matter won't have started here!

A S H Smyth is a freelance journalist, specialising in foreign affairs, conflict & security, and Southern Africa.


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