Tuesday, December 4

How to Read a Novel: A User’s Guide – John Sutherland

Sutherland addresses pretty much every aspect of the novel, from its evolution through the future incarnations (will e-books ever replace paper and ink?) to the impossibility of hearing of more than a fraction of what’s available, let alone reading it all. He talks about publishing, reviewing, awards, hardback vs paperback, the impact of the Internet, margins and marginalia, films from books, dust jackets and blurbs.
According to the blurb of this book, “We assume reading is like riding a bicycle – you can do it or you can’t. But reading well is almost as difficult as writing well. This book is a guide to how to do it.”
Not so much. The title is certainly catchy, and the blurb lead me to buy the book (despite my book budget), but there’s little hear about how to actually read a novel. There is, however, quite a lot about how much awareness of place affects your reading of a novel – Sutherland discusses at length a review of the well received novel Saturday by Ian McEwan. Lauded in the UK, and broadly tipped to take out a major award, the book was reviewed by John Banville, an American novelist, just prior to its US release. Banville, in the first review of Saturday published in the US, savaged the novel; although his review was attacked, it’s highly likely that the resultant brouhaha cost McEwan the award that, not entirely coincidentally, Banville received.
Sutherland is highly critical of Banville’s errors in the review – chiefly that he believed McEwan’s protagonist won a squash match (described, moment by moment, over 17 pages) he lost, which evidently colours the rest of the text, and places the action in North London when it takes place in West London, a location as “tight, precise and integral to the novel” as its time frame. “If you know central London the novel has a distinct Fitzrovian feel to it… [it] is a quintessentially Fitzrovia-Bloomsbury novel.” Does not knowing this affect the reading of the novel? Sutherland says it absolutely makes a difference – although errors the author made (like the hours a gentleman’s club are open, and whether or not a given gym has a squash court) are evidently “truly piddling.”
There is a section on hearing the characters’ voices – “Zadie Smith’s On Beauty is set… in New England. She herself spent a couple of years there… What accent should the reader’s ear impose on the [text]? Smith’s Cambridge, England voice or her Cambridge Mass. voice? … Snooty cis-Atlantic, homely trans-Atlantic or bland mid-Atlantic? The passage means something different in each case.”
And these two aspects – emphasis on location and emphasis on voice - capture my issue with the book. It’s taken me over a week to write the review, because I’ve had trouble articulating how I feel about it. Far from helping me improve my ability to read a novel, my technique in approaching literature, or even my selection of what to read, I finished this tome feeling undereducated, Colonial, and unable to appreciate the delicate nuances of fiction. I quite clearly shouldn’t even attempt reading On Beauty, as I don’t even know what a “cis-Atlantic” ("this [the speaker's] side of the Atlantic") accent sounds like, and I don’t hear accent when I read anyway, unless it’s to notice annoyingly-rendered dialect. Maybe I should stick to novels set in the inner and eastern suburbs of Melbourne, instead. Or give up on reading and just watch television. - Alex

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