How to Read a Novel

A User's Guide

by John Sutherland

St. Martin's, 272 pp., $21.95

On meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), Abraham Lincoln commented wryly, "'So this is the little lady who started a great war.'" And if Tony Blair were brave enough to be seen with Salman Rushdie, he might make a similar observation about the author of The Satanic Verses, who arguably provoked the present crisis in the Middle East. At least, that's how John Sutherland sees it in his latest book, which doesn't explain how to read a novel so much as it describes the history of the novel and the conventions associated with it. Informative yet humorous, the book is crammed with fascinating facts playfully arranged.

Whenever the subject matter threatens to become heavy, Sutherland adds an anecdote or puts forth a pun. He doesn't tell any explicitly dirty jokes, but he often illustrates his points with some laugh-out-loud sexual innuendo, as when Sutherland notes that Norman Mailer in The Naked and the Dead larded his dialogue with the word "Fug," which inspired Dorothy Parker to say, "So you're the young man who can't spell 'f--.'" But as pleasant as it is to read, this book has a serious message: The more intelligently you read, the richer your experience will be. And while you don't have to understand all the historical and internal underpinnings of a book, knowing those things can't hurt.

We learn that William Caxton (1422-1491), who founded the British book trade, was taught the art of printing in Cologne and set up his printing press in Westminster Abbey around 1474. The first item he printed was a treatise on indulgences, his first book a translation of the sayings of the philosophers.

Gradually, paper (invented by the Chinese) and movable type made possible the ordering, transmission, and circulation of information that became print culture and the foundation of the modern world. Print culture generated the novel, whose name literally means new thing, as opposed to poetry and drama--both very old things, which didn't need to be in print.

The arrival of fiction--Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Samuel Richardson's Pamela (1741)--correlated with two other sociocultural happenings in Britain: the rise of capitalism and the notion of individualism. Both shaped the novel from its production to its price, distribution, reception, and consumption. Not only is the novel the product of an advanced social culture; it's also the mark of a mature and educated personal culture. A little more than 200 years later, Pamela, with her sterling character, had given way to modern heroines like Lady Chatterley. First printed in Italy in 1928, and in the United States in 1959, D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, with its explicit sex scenes, changed history. It also split publishing into pre-Chatterley and post-Chatterley years, with its 1959 break falling "across the careers of authors like Philip Roth (compare Goodbye Columbus [1959] with his outrageous homage to onanism, Portnoy's Complaint [1969])."

Organizing his book, Sutherland looks at the novel from a distance, then moves in close. He describes its history, the publishing industry, the particular genres of fiction, the volume itself (replete with dust jacket, cover art, blurb or synopsis, and endorsement tags), the page (title, copyright, epigraph, foreword, afterword), and the words on the page.

An emeritus professor of literature at University College London, columnist for the Guardian, veteran reviewer, and committee chairman for the 2005 Man Booker Prize, Sutherland believes that novels should be enjoyed, not analyzed. But he doesn't use the word "enjoy" lightly: He loads it with its etymological significance. For him, enjoyment isn't idle fun; it's pleasure in taking possession, as Webster's unabridged suggests. The more readers know, the more they can "possess" a novel and, thereby, enjoy it.

That's why Sutherland believes that it's almost as difficult to read a novel well as it is to write one--well. Yet the difficulty is worth it: "A clever engagement with the novel is one of the more noble functions of human intelligence," he declares. For starters, Sutherland advises readers to choose a book that they can afford and that suits their interests and tastes. Since there are so many novels and so little time to read, this is easier said than done: "Every week now more novels are published than Samuel Johnson had to deal with in a decade." If someone reads 40 hours a week every week, except for vacation, and can read a book in three hours, he would "need 163 lifetimes to read them all."

Hype adds to the difficulty of choosing a suitable book. Confusing, coercive, and culturally deafening, the signals surrounding a book make an intelligent choice almost impossible. Prospective readers are bombarded with everything from celebrity authorship, high-pressure sales tactics (bestseller lists to price discounts), advertisements, endorsements, and dust jackets. Yet you must navigate the hype in order to start the intelligent-browsing (Sutherland calls it powerful-browsing) stage of book-buying, in which readers face myriad considerations, beginning with their choice of genre. Ranging from Christian novels to pornography, fiction comes in almost as many flavors as ice cream, including chick lit, literary fiction, thrillers, science fiction, fantasy, satire, graphic novels, horror, historical fiction, and detective stories.

The task would be difficult enough if money were no object. But price is important, which leads to the next consideration: hardcovers or paperbacks? Paperbacks are cheaper, but they aren't usually reviewed. Paperback reprints mean that the book sold well, but does that mean anything? How much credence to put in awards like the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, the Nobel Prize, and the Man Booker Prize? Do these show the biases of judges or a writer's quality? A little of both, Sutherland suggests.

What about bestseller lists? Considering the ways booksellers and publishers promote books, can lists serve as a guide to choosing a good novel? Or are they just a form of advertising?

For that matter, are reviews a form of advertising, too? Are they helpful or trustworthy? How good are word-of-mouth recommendations, especially when compared with those of professionals? What about pre-pub reviews in magazines like Publisher's Weekly versus newspaper and magazine reviews? How trustworthy are the blurbs on the covers? Blurbs (from the cartoon character, Miss Belinda Blurb) are written to give away enough of the plot to entice readers to buy the book. Shoutlines, or endorsement tags, which also appear on the book's cover in hardbacks (or on the first pages of a paperback) have either been taken out of reviews or solicited from other writers, often friends of the author.

Fewer than 5 percent of new novels get reviewed, partly because reviewers are swamped (Sutherland thinks reviewers spend too much time finding fault with minutiae). Reviewers also consider it a matter of "professional pride not to agree with each other," which makes Sutherland question their standards. Like the American critic Dale Peck (Hatchet Jobs), Sutherland considers reviewing a kind of pelting with dung lest writers get above themselves.

One of the most informative and funniest sections concerns the dust jacket, which Sutherland warns is not just for dust. Take the example of Michel Houellebecq's The Elementary Particles. Originally published in France in 1998, it is a novel of ideas presented as a philosophical analysis of world civilization in the new millennium, with humanity seen bleakly in "the throes of a third mutation." Since translations and metaphysical books by French intellectuals sell badly, the publishers put a skimpily clad woman on the book's jacket (no relation to the contents of Atomised) as a way to entice readers. "But using women's bodies as cheese on the literary mousetrap has a venerable tradition," Sutherland reminds us. And possibly subscribing to that same tradition, he laces these pages with reproductions of a few of those salacious covers. Not that he's trying to sell his book, mind you. He's only trying to bring home his point.

Diane Scharper is professor of English at Towson University.

Next Page