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How Novels Work (thoughts)

May 27, 2007

Oh. my. gosh. A couple months ago, I grabbed a book off my library’s two-week collection called How to Read Novel. If you recall, it was not very impressive. So, flash forward to last Friday. I am once again browsing my library’s two-week collection, and suddenly I see John Mullan’s How Novels Work. Intrigued, I look at the book flap and discover that the book is based on a series of columns he wrote aimed at book club participants about literary criticism for the masses. Hoping against hope that this was the book I’d been looking for, I checked it out.

And proceeded to devour it. It was everything I’ve been looking for-Mullan introduces literary criticism by actually analysing various new and classic novels. He never ‘talks down’ to the reader, but he also assumes you have no background in literary criticism (i.e.-me!). I feel like I learned as much from reading this book as I would have from an intro college class-I want to go out and buy it so that I can mark my copy all up. :)

The book is arranged by theme. The chapters are: beginning, narrating, people, genre, voices, structure, detail, style, devices, literariness, and ending. That pretty much sums up what you’re going to learn about. :) Mullan has a nice, structured style: the beginning of every chapter summarises his points and outlines what books we’re going to look at and what details we’re going to find. He keeps the digs at contemporary authors to a minimum, despite his obvious membership in ‘literary circles,’ which is refreshing. I’ve probably read about half of the books he analysed; for those that I hadn’t read, he gives enough background that I don’t feel like I’m missing out. In fact, I have a whole list of books that I now want to read! (see the end of this post) He does a pretty good job about avoiding spoilers until the last chapter, which discusses novels’ endings. Fortunately, I had read most of the books in this chapter, but there was one part where I had to actually shut my eyes and turn the page so that a novel I’ve been meaning to read wasn’t ruined!

I’m very grateful to Mullan for providing me the tools to analyse the books that I read in a more detailed and organised manner. I’m hoping that my posts will become more thoughtful, and I almost feel like designing a whole set of homework assignments around the book. Honestly, it is simply stunning. For anyone out there who is intelligent and curious about literary criticism, but doesn’t have any kind of background in it, this book is a godsend. It’s also just great to read a book by someone who obviously loves reading and loves fiction. :) Sometimes, it seems like fiction is still judged as ‘lesser’ than non-fiction; Mulland truly shows its power. Highly, highly recommended.

Favorite Passages

The Novel, that most accessible, democratic of literary forms, must establish its contract with its reader. It may be helped or hindered by all sorts of extraneous influences: cover design, encrustations of quotation from admiring reviewers, and the like. But it must also make its own way in the world. (9)Nothing is stranger or more important in our reading of novels that the sense that we are encountering real people in them. (79)

‘Genre’ is a word for types of writing; it is also therefore a word for habits of reading. Though novelists might like to cheat expectations, they need readers to have expectations that can be cheated. Genre alerts us to the readerly expectation learned from similar books….Genre does not mean an imposition of rules, but the presence of conventins that may be altered or flouted. (105)

There is plentiful eveidence of novels being read aloud to family and friends in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries…Novelists once needed to consider their novels as scripts for amateur performers, and to give help to a reader aloud. (127-8)

Letters permit an intimacy impossibel in speech. They are most charged with this potential when they belong to a world where codes of propriety are strongest. (256)

The Novel is a genre that would have us believe that its characters might have a life beyond its pages. (319)

Additions for the tbr list: The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene, The Little Friend by Donna Tartt, The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, The Master of Petersburg by J.M. Coetzee, To the Hermitage by Malcolm Bradbury, Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley series, Adam and Eve and Pinch Me by Ruth Rendell, My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, Music and Silence by Rose Tremain, Cecilia by Fanny Burney, A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley (in conj w/ “King Lear”), and The Secret History by Donna Tartt.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Arukiyomi permalink
    May 28, 2007 6:32 am

    That sounds like a very interesting read. Thanks for blogging it.

    As for your TBR additions: The Power & The Glory is excellent. The Heart of the Matter is, I feel, his best.

    I thought A Thousand Acres was very disappointing. I’ve never read King Lear but if Smiley’s story is anything like Shakespeare’s then that’s another black mark against the book. Quite why you’d try to rewrite Shakespeare seems beyond me… like isn’t he good enough for you or? I have no idea why it won a Pulitzer. Must have been a bad year ;-)

  2. acquisitionist permalink
    May 28, 2007 10:33 am

    Thanks for sharing this discovery. I’m not that conversant with critical theory despite having studied lit at uni. There’s a unit on reading theory available but I haven’t taken it yet. So, this one looks to be a good introduction. Good for the aspiring teacher that I am too! I love that you have considered doing homework activities to complement your reading of it.

    The Secret History excited the polymath in me. Let me know if you enjoy it. I’m contemplating taking The Little Friend away on my trip as plane reading – I’ve had raving recommendations from several friends.

  3. J.S. Peyton permalink
    May 28, 2007 10:36 pm

    Have you read Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose? If you have, I wonder how you think it compares to How Novels Work because they both seem to have a similar structure and purport to do the same thing: encourage and instruct readers to read critically.

    acquisitionist – I’d be interested to see what you think of The Little Friend. It’s very different from The Secret History. I thought that though the writting was great, the story, particularly the ending left something to be desired.

  4. Ian permalink
    May 30, 2007 10:06 pm

    I love books about books. I’ll have to check this one out. Thanks for the review.

  5. trish permalink
    July 16, 2008 10:50 am

    I’m totally putting this on my wishlist! Sounds awesome!

  6. July 17, 2008 2:35 pm

    I want to give this a try too, now! Thanks for the review.


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