How to Read a Novelist

Image of How to Read a Novelist
Release Date: 
October 8, 2013
FSG Originals
Reviewed by: 

“. . . it seems a casserole of sorts, a goulash of a thing—a way of gathering together leftovers in one pot in an attempt to make them palatable enough to be published in a single volume.”

Puzzles large and small yield to disappointments as the reader tackles critic, journalist, and poet John Freeman’s new work How to Read a Novelist, a book described by its own marketing copy as “an instructive and illuminating, definitive yet idiosyncratic collection of conversations with more than fifty of the world’s greatest novelists.”

Would that it were so.

Seldom has a cover so poorly defined the contents of the actual book.

Even more puzzling is the quotation credited to the brilliant novelist Junot Diaz (although, apparently, not one of the top 50 since he was not interviewed inside the book) that wends its way around the book’s cover:

“If only I had this book at the start of my career—what falls and confusion I would have been spared. It is a gift for readers and for writers.”

Having read said book, I cannot for the life of me understand what banana-skin slip-ups this book might help any fledgling writer—Mr. Diaz included—to avoid.

How to Read a Novelist is nothing more than a compilation of short interviews that Mr. Freeman conducted with various authors for various magazines and newspapers, mostly between 2004 and 2007. In other words, a good bit of time ago.

As Mr. Freeman describes it, he had a genuine purpose in gathering these pieces together here:

“I have always felt there is something electrifying about meeting novelists. It isn’t like running into a celebrity, where your eye readjusts to the true physical contours of someone seen primarily on screen. It has to do with grasping that the creator of a fictional world, a universe that lives inside you as a reader while also feeling strangely disembodied, is not as interior as that world but alive: flesh and blood.

“In this fashion, I wanted the pieces I wrote about novelists to describe an encounter, to show to the reader what the writer revealed to me, at their own choosing, over an hour or two or three, sometimes more, of talk. An interview, though, is not an actual conversation, but rather a form of conversation that has the same relationship to talking as fiction does to life. In order to work, fiction must abide a set of rules it defines for itself, even if invisibly, and if an interview is to flow like a chat between two people it, too, must follow a set of conventions, some of them quite contradictory to how we are taught to interact naturally. Namely, that the interviewer asks all the questions, offers pieces of information only for the purpose of stimulating more from the subject, and, primarily, that neither party calls attention to the artificiality of what is happening.”

And yet artificiality is everywhere. It’s that instruction, that illumination that seems to be missing.

The short interviews contained in the book resemble nothing more than reruns of television appearances of these authors (Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, John Irving, Edmund White, Toni Morrison, Amy Tan, Salman Rushdie, Joyce Carol Oates, and many, many others) in the brief segments that Johnny Carson used to reserve for the last few minutes of The Tonight Show.

The structure is always the same: author and interviewer “meet cute” in Rom-Com fashion, sometimes in the author’s book-lined study, other times in a charming café on the Upper West Side.

Mr. Freeman likes to begin with a description of his subject, and thus we learn that John Irving has “remained boyish into his seventies,” (He comes to the interview “dressed for hot weather—shorts and an athletic T-shirt. No AC for him.); that Norman Mailer was a “twinkle-eyed novelist,” even at age 84; and that Edmund White gets positively “puppyish” with delight when he reads a positive review of his work.

But not much more.

As if talking to Johnny, the authors all seem to have taken to the interview couch for a single purpose: to sell something.

Thus Robert Pirsig grants his first interview in 20 years not so much to let the world know how many publishers he had to write to about his first book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance before he got any sort of response (answer: 122) back in 1968, but because he in interested in bolstering the number of sales that his 1991 second book Lila: An Inquiry into Morals might have upon its release some years later.

Because the interviews packaged here were focused and targeted on the sales of specific “new” books (invariably books that are today little-known—the authors’ best known volumes are somehow never the ones discussed in these pages), the information gleaned by Mr. Freeman seems always somewhat lacking in terms of actual content. And the conclusions reached by Mr. Freeman at the end of his fact-finding mission seems rather shallow as well. As with this:

“True storytellers write, I believe, not because they can but because they have to.”

A conclusion neither particularly insightful or in any way fresh. Or to put it another way, the reader asks, “For this I read 372 pages?”

And so the book goes forward, mixing very well known authors with some obscure ones. Authors’ credits (National Book Award shortlists, National Book Critics Circle nominations, the occasional Pulitzer or Nobel) are shouted about in a preamble to each interview that the reader hears in his head as if pantingly stated by Merv Griffin himself.

There is nothing essentially bad about How to Read a Novelist. It is a pleasant enough volume that perhaps will introduce readers to some writers with whom they are unfamiliar. It is the sort of book best read in fits and spurts, as the reader jumps from favored author to favored author, taking in the interviews out of sequence—a perfect bedside book for those winding-down moments at the end of a long day.

What the book is not is any sort of serious study of the writer’s art, or any in-depth look into the lives of the authors themselves, or even a consideration of the world of publishing.

In truth, it seems a casserole of sorts, a goulash of a thing—a way of gathering together leftovers in one pot in an attempt to make them palatable enough to be published in a single volume.

Thought of in this manner, the book is successful enough.

But what of that title?

How to Read a Novelist.

When first seen, it creates expectations. If not on how to read generally, how to better understand the art of fiction—a book that very likely would have been named How to Read a Novel—no, this book promises to be writer-specific. The title seems to promise that these interviews would give us insight into how each of these writers is best approached by a given reader in order to most successfully absorb the message they convey.

Mission not accomplished.

These interviews instead give us a Wikipedia-lite biography of the writer followed by a wry “kiss kiss” introduction to them in their natural habitat, followed by the simplest of question and answer ceremonies geared to allow the author to (metaphorically) hold up a copy of their latest tome and stare lovingly into the camera’s lens.

So, again, that title. How to put things right?

A better title might be How to Read These Novelists, as the book is so very very site-specific—like visiting the author’s web sites. Or better still, Why Read These Novelists?, a title that, while it sneaks a bit closer to the truth, demands a very telling subtitle: Because I Told You To. Or better still once again: Because I Liked Them Very Very Much and So Should You as Well.