“Oh, so that’s how!”

The poet Anthony Thwaite recently retired the story that, as chairman of the Booker Prize judging panel in 1986, he lectured his fellow judges on how to read a novel. If Thwaite was telling the truth, that makes him a loner on the literary scene. Everywhere, charitable souls are seeking to improve our novel-reading habits – to sharpen our vigilance, to teach us how to spot an unreliable narrator or the difference between showing and telling. This carry-on used to be confined to university lecture halls, where academics would solemnly inform their undergraduates about the openness of the novel form. But the proliferation of crusading celebrity professors, inaugurated in literary studies by the American Harold Bloom, has brought the performance into public view, and now even trade publishers are filling the shelves with manuals. Bloom himself professed to teach not just how to read but why (in How To Read and Why), and though his English followers – James Wood, John Sutherland, and John Mullan – only offer the ‘how’, this still provides them with enough difficulties.

{{ quote Everywhere, charitable souls are seeking to improve our novel-reading habits; even trade publishers are filling the shelves with manuals }}

One of the virtues of the ‘how’ formula is that it provides a patina of detachment to books that are  powered by agenda. James Wood, in his pungent, perceptive book How Fiction Works, is not concerned with how fiction works in the way that a mechanic is concerned with how an engine works: he is concerned with ways in which it succeeds or fails. Wood, an Englishman who now writes for The New Yorker, does not arrive at a set of principles by proceeding systematically through types and categories, as Aristotle did in Poetics. His method is almost opposite. The chapters on – for instance – character and detail are constructed around arguments for and against certain procedures, and the procedures are only explained insofar as they are evaluated. The book is transparently a promotion and defence of Wood’s view of fiction as a secular religion, possessing what he calls “lifeness”.

Wood’s aesthetic bias is conflated with what might be called the book’s mechanical elements. Wood starts by posing a series of questions to mark out the book’s territory: “Is realism real? How do we define a successful metaphor? What is a character? When do we recognise a brilliant use of detail in fiction? What is point of view and how does it work? What is imaginative sympathy? Why does fiction move us?”  But surely contemplating whether realism is real or the definition of a fictional character is a different order of enquiry from recognising a ‘brilliant’ use of detail and identifying a ‘successful’ metaphor? Wood is evidently seeking to collapse the distinction between definition and evaluation, the intended effect being that the reader will accept his evaluative judgements with the same passivity as they accept his definitions.

The book requires that the reader run a certain distance with Wood in order to engage with him at all. For instance in the chapter on narrating, he starts by distinguishing between the available modes (first-person and third-person, omniscient and partial, reliable and unreliable) but he is soon concentating his energies on advocating one approach – free indirect style, in which third person narration accommodates a character’s impressions without quoted speech or thought (this is why it is ‘indirect’) and without the tag “he said” or “he thought” (this why it is ‘free’). Jane Austen was essentially the inventor of free indirect style, although it was used fleetingly in the work of earlier novelists (Henry Fielding, Maria Edgeworth), and there is even evidence of it in the poetry of Virgil and the Old Testament. The most famous modern example of free indirect style is the first sentence of James Joyce’s story “The Dead”: “Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally run off her feet.” Wood’s response to this is that “no one is literally run off her feet”, as James Joyce would have been aware, so this sentence must be inhabiting and, to an extent, ventriloquising Lily’s thoughts (as Wood has it: “Oi was lit-er-rully ron off me feet!”). Wood admires free indirect style because it enables the reader to “see things through the character’s eyes and language but also through the author’s eyes and language, too”. It affords a synthesis of detachment and sympathy, judgement and forgiveness, making it the ideal vehicle for authorial irony.

The difficulty with Wood’s prescriptions is that they are extreme and not all writers aspire to them, so his passions cast shadows of censure and disdain. By consecrating irony as an ideal, he outlaws authors who write over their characters; by consecrating the lyrical robustness and metaphysical solemnity of Saul Bellow as the ideal approach to postwar American life, he shuns the sociological patter of Don DeLillo and Jonathan Franzen, the euphonious swooning of John Updike, and the pie-in-the-sky hyperactivity of Thomas Pynchon; by consecrating the full-blooded realism of Tolstoy, he derides the anaemic realism of Graham Greene and John Le Carré. But what about readers who have no difficulty reconciling their admiration of Bellow with their admiration of Updike and Pynchon? Don’t they know how fiction works?

But Wood’s book is not about how fiction works (there is no chapter on plot or the fictional world). It is about the aesthetic potential of fiction, and it is predominantly concerned with what he admires in the fiction of a number of writers, many of them, such as José Saramago and Philip Roth, still practising. (Although the publisher boasts that this is Wood’s “first full-length book of criticism”, it is mostly constructed from book reviews he wrote for The New Republic.) To this end, Wood has read widely as well as closely, and the product of his graft constitutes a uniquely principled and passionate stand for aesthetic criticism. Wood’s strengths have prevented him from writing an even-tempered, explanatory book about fiction, but as a normative account of literary practice, How Fiction Works is eloquent, nimble, and robust.

Wood’s chief contribution to literary life is that he has, with almost no assistance at all, sustained the book review as a literary form. Most book reviewers are moonlighting – earning extra pocket money on top of their jobs as novelists or journalists or academics – and treat the work accordingly. This is certainly the case with John Sutherland, who after spending a distinguished career as a specialist in Victorian literature and 1970s potboilers, has paddled through his retirement spewing out superficial reviews for English broadsheets – including a wrist-slapping response to James Wood. How To Read A Novel: A User’s Guide, Sutherland’s twenty-first book, bears the same relationship to literary criticism as his reviews do to literary journalism.

For Sutherland the populariser (evidently a different man altogether from Sutherland the august scholar of Thackeray and Sir Walter Scott), reading a novel is about taking a series of banal consumerist choices. His book ought to be entitled “How to buy a novel”, so obsessed is it with choosing the right product (one of the chapters is called “Hardback or paperback?”), together with other, still more nugatory concerns. James Wood’s book is a howl in defence of reading as a human activity, and a celebration of great writers; Sutherland’s book is an advice guide for the frightened reader. Rather than countervailing the Amazon age, Sutherland proceeds as if joining those you can’t beat is the only solution.

It is unfortunate that this jaunty, gimmicky, gossipy book will be read or at least bought – for Sutherland, the distinction is null – by thousands of people who might instead have been reading novelists whom Sutherland admires like Jane Austen or John Banville or V.S. Naipaul (this last writer is mentioned only once, in connection with a “literary sting operation” in which famous books were rejected by publishers). Reading Sutherland’s book will not even help people to read those writers. Apart from a chapter on the fictional world, there is nothing in the way of literary analysis or interpretation. If the book is intended merely to help ‘users’ survive the noisy bombardments of the Amazon age, why did he call it How to Read a Novel? Sutherland’s chapter on titles provides no answer.

There is, however, one instructive piece of advice in the book. Sutherland follows Marshall McLuhan, the amusing but cock-eyed sociologist who proclaimed the death of the book, in advising that an effective browser’s tool is to skip to page 69 and see what you find. It seems to work: page 69 of Sutherland’s book groans with trivia about copyright.

In terms of usefulness, Sutherland, with his avuncular populism, is shamed by John Mullan and his book How Novels Work. Mullan is a professor of English literature at UCL, as Sutherland used to be, and like Wood, he takes criticism seriously. His book seeks to explain how novels – or certain devices in certain novels – operate, which is what Wood, with his emphasis on why they do or do not work aesthetically, doesn’t try to do, and what Sutherland, with his weakness for facts and figures, forgets to. This is the ‘how’ book as it is ideally practised, for better or worse.

Mullan begins with beginnings and ends with endings (one of the many ways in which he follows David Lodge’s better book The Art of Fiction). In between, he discusses ‘Style’ and ‘Literariness’, among other things, serene in the knowledge that a novel is always enjoyed “not because of what it is about”, but “because of how it is written”. (I more or less agree, but I would still have liked Mullan to argue his case.) Like Wood, who disdains literary theory at one extreme and Amazon user reviews at the other, Mullan wishes to distance his approach both from book reviewing, which he briskly dismisses as “criticism of first impressions”, and academic literary criticism, which he objects to on the familiar grounds that it isn’t designed for ordinary people. Mullan announces his intention to be “intelligible without being glib”, though the resulting book is intelligible without being good.

Although Mullan is willing and well-equipped to perform the task that Wood side-steps, his complete refusal to confront evaluation reduces novels to their representativeness. He is unabashed at writing sentences which begin with constructions like “It is not uncommon for novels…” With few exceptions, Mullan’s examples come from the last twenty-five years, and most of them from more recent than that (despite this, he describes E. Annie Proulx’s novel of 1993, The Shipping News, as “recent”). They are chosen because their devices are common. When he is in the mood, Mullan will pronounce that an author has performed a certain thing “cleverly”, but this is rare. It is reflective of Mullan’s project that he never justifies his prolonged engagement with The Constant Gardener, a feeble book even by the standards of its author, John Le Carré. It is also reflective of Mullan’s project that it is Le Carré – and not Proust or Dickens or Tolstoy – who serves his purposes best.

The limits of Mullan’s book are the limits of its form. The ‘how’ book is duty-bound to issue certain concrete statements about the novel – one of them being how free and lawless it is. It must establish a working definition of fiction in order to get started, but acknowledge the multifariousness of existing novels. The passages chosen must be unusually engaging as well as usefully ordinary. They must amply represent the novel’s particularisation of detail but their example must be translatable to the reading of other texts. The reading offered must be recognised as sane and confident without closing off other interpretative possibilities. (Mullan’s account of Carol Shields’s novel Unless has encouraged me to read the book, but how can I free my reading of Shields’s novel from Mullan’s?) To describe John Mullan’s book as effective and James Wood’s book as ineffective is to criticise the one and praise the other.

Of course, there have been books and articles which succeed in elucidating works of fiction and provide models of how to read them. (My personal hit-parade, not that you asked, would include: Eric Auerbach’s Mimesis, Michael Wood’s Literature and the Taste of Knowledge, Roy Pascal’s The Dual Voice, Fank Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending, James Wood’s essay collections, The Broken Estate and The Irresponsible Self, Lilian Furst’s All is True, and Georg Lukacs’s Realism in the Balance.) But despite the lucid, trenchant, yielding work of many critics and scholars, there remain strong reasons for doubting the possibility of doctrines of reading. In his essay “On Reading” (1976), the semiotician Roland Barthes warned that reading was not a unitary discipline but “a plural field of scattered practices”. Reading as a competence – “the apprenticeship to letters, to written words” – is easy enough to identify, but the difficulty arises with knowing where “to halt the depth and the dispersion of reading”. A science of reading was impossible, Barthes argued, because reading very quickly becomes “a knowledge without basis, without rules, without degrees, and without end.”

Barthes was scarcely alone among post-war French thinkers in disturbing traditional humanist pieties about reading. When the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu formulated his account of reading, he went further towards dismantling the idea of what Barthes called “the ‘wild’, ‘natural’ reading” of a work. In his book, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste (1979), Bourdieu portrayed aesthetic response as the site of a class battleground. Value judgements not only reflected educational background, social upbringing and economic circumstances, but were also employed as a form of self-definition. “Taste classifies”, Bourdieu wrote, “and it classifies the classifier”.

By testing traditional humanist pieties about reading against the rigours of the their disciplines, Bourdieu and Barthes made reading into both more troubling and more interesting. The way we approach novels is not, after all, wild or natural, but nurtural and contingent, determined not only by our experience and our education, but our habits of minds, our conscious and unconscious desires, and our ideological allegiances. Our reasons or motives for reading might include moral instruction, sensual pleasure (what Barthes calls fetishism), political indoctrination, innocent curiosity, educational duty, perceived social obligation, or desire for intellectual self-betterment; we might read to be persuaded, humbled, moved, thrilled, or angered; or due to lack of imagination, or money, or friends. James Wood’s sense of certitude about a text is in fact only certitude that he has discovered his appropriate response to it – that he has taken what it has to give to him. The text itself confines the possible ways it can be read – Moby-Dick is not about New Labour or cross-dressing – but they are still various.

There is, however, an altogether more commonsensical reason for avoiding these books. It comes not from a work of philosophy or criticism but from a novel, Bluebeard by Kurt Vonnegut, in which the narrator, a painter named Rabo Karabekian, recalls the response of another painter, Syd Solomon, to an innocent but troubling enquiry from a young admirer:

> ‘How can you tell a good painting from a bad one?… All have to do, my dear… is look at a million paintings, and then you can never be mistaken.’

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