Friday, 7 May 2021

How To Read Novels Like A Professor by Thomas C. Foster



I am not a professor in literature, but I would like to be. Unfortunately, this will never happen, so, I have to go along trying to read novels and literature like a professor. Thomas C. Foster's book is therefor a very useful tool. He has also written How To Read Literature Like A Professor, which sounds like another useful read.

It is not only a book for readers. I would say it is also useful for aspring writers. How do you make a novel interesting? What does it have to contain? Who should be the narrator and what should he/she do? The content gives a hint on what makes up a good book. 

Pickup Lines and Open(ing) Seductions, or Why Novels Have First Pages - are we not fascinated by how certain writers manage to hook you on the first sentence? This seems to be one of the most important sentences in a book and Foster mentions a few excellent openings. I love good openings and cannot help but quote them here, although I am sure you are already familiar with them (I only knew 2,4 and 5):

  • "What's it going to be, then?"
  • "Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself."
  • "This is the saddest story I ever heard."
  • "Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice."
  • "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a man in possession of a fortune must be in want of a wife."
  • "At an age when most young Scotsmen were lifting skirts, plowing furrows and spreading seed, Mungo Park was displaying his bare buttocks to al-haj' Ali Abu Fatoudi, Emir of Ludamar."

"The first page, sometimes the first paragraph, even the first sentence, can give you everything you need to know to read the novel. How? By conveying some or all of the eighteen things the first page can tell you." Eighteen things to include in the first page! That must be rather tough. Let's see what he partly says (more reflections in the book).

  1. Style - short or long sentences? Simple or complex? Rushed or leisurely? "The first page of any Hemingway novel will impress us with short sentences and a strong sense that the writer was badly frightened in infancy by words ending in "ly"." Writers inspired by Hemingway; Ross Macdonald, Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane.
  2. Tone - Every book has a tone. Is it elegiac, or matter-of-fact, or ironic? A tonal masterpiece is the first sentence of Pride and Prejudice. 
  3. Mood - Similar to tone but not quite the same. Not like tone which is about what the voice sounds like, here it is about what it is telling. For example Nick Carraway's narration in The Great Gatsby. "So what is it, we wonder at once, that he's not quite saying here?"
  4. Diction - What kind of words does the novel use? Common or rare? Friendly or challenging? Are the sentences whole or fractured...? A Clockwork Orange set as example with the "deceptive simple query, "What's it going to be, then?".
  5. Point of view  - Who is the narrator? 
  6. Narrative presence - Is the narrator inside or outside the story? First person narrators are clear, but what about third-person narrators? In the old days the third person narrator was more someone of the world, amused by what was going on, while in modern times the narrator is often impersonal, detached and cool (Hemingway, Anita Brookner).
  7. Narrative attitude - toward characters and events. "Austen's are generally amused, slightly aloof, a little superior. Dickens's tend to be earnest, involved direct... Flaubert's narrator in Madame Bovary is famously cool and impersonal..."
  8. Time frame - When is all this happening? Contemporaneously or a long time ago? How can we tell? Does the novel cover a lot of time or a little? "That "many years later" of the García Marzquez opening is magical. It says, first of all, that this novel will cover a great deal of time, enough for a small child holding his farther's hand to rise to power and fall from it."
  9. Time management - Will time go fast or slow in this novel? Is it being told in or near the now of the story or long after?
  10. Place - Place is a sense of things, a mode of thought, a way of seeing. 
  11. Motif - Stuff that happens again and again. Motif can be image, action, language pattern, anything that happens again and again. Like miracles and the colonel's narrow escapes in One Hundred Years of Solitude. Like the flowers in Mrs. Dalloway.
  12. Theme - Story is what gets a novel going and what we focus on, but theme is one of the things that makes it worthwhile.
  13. Irony - Or not - some novels are in dead earnest. The entire nineteenth century springs to mind.
  14. Rhythm -There are two levels of rhythm in a novel: prose and narrative.
  15. Pace - How fast do we go? Foster quotes the opening from Henry James' The Portrait of a Lady. This is not going to be a hundred-yard dash. Everything about the passage says "leisurely" - the long, abstract words, the embedded "some people never do," the sense that his should be no more rushed than the event, if you can call it that, that it describes. James is never frantic, never in a hurry.
  16. Expectations - Of the writer, of the reader. 
  17. Character -Not always on page one, but more often than not. The bottom line: people are helpful to start a novel.
  18. Instructions on how to read the novel - All of these previously mentioned elements go into teaching us how the novel wants to be read. Whether we read it that way or not is, naturally, our call. But every novel wants to be read in a certain way. 

Who's in Charge Here? - yes, narration could be difficult. "Perhaps the novelist's hardest task is deciding who should tell the story. Main character? Secondary character?" Can we trust the narrator? Is he/she reliable? Obviously more important than one usually realise. 

Wrinkles in Time, or Chapters Just Might Matter - "You pick up a novel, open to page one, and your heart sinks. Why? No number, no title. In other words, no chapters. You're facing the black prospect of life without breaks, the long, long slog through an untrammelled narrative wilderness." I understand the feeling. 

Drowning in the Stream of Consciousness - "Once upon a time, narrative was simple. You said what characters did, you quoted their dialogue, and, if need be, you told what they thought: ... But then, as Virginia Woolf points out. "On or about December 1910, human nature changed." Certainly the novelist's relationship to consciousness did. As a result of huge changes in the scientific and philosophical understanding of the mind - the by-products of work by Freud and Jung ... the depiction of consciousness became much more fluid. And messy."

Foster guides us through novels of various kinds. Often he comes back to Ulysses, The French Lieutenant's Woman, and Alice in Wonderland, but he refers to other novels as well, from classics having made a mark in literature, to more modern stories.

It is an easy, enjoyable read down literature lane. Lots of good advice how to interpret or find out what the author is trying to convey to the reader. It is written in a humorous way and sometimes I laughed out loud. A perfect non-fiction book about fiction books.




8 comments:

  1. This is just fascinating, Lisbeth. It looks fun but also so very informative. Thanks for turning me on to it.

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    1. It was really an interesting read. A few good advice how to look at a novel.

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  2. Great review. I still have "How to Read Literature Like a Professor" on my TBR pile, maybe I should start that soon ...

    Thanks for your post.

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    1. Oh, I have to read that as well. Will try to find it. This one was really good and useful, which I am sure ...Literature.. is as well.

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  3. Funnily enough, I just checked the first lines because I also only recognize 2, 4 and 5. However, I googled and found I have read 1 and 3 (A Clockwork Orange and The Good Soldier), as well but have never heard of the last one (Mungo Among the Moors by T.C. Boyle, though I have heard of the author).

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    1. Never heard about Boyle either. He does not seem to be that famous, but maybe in the US. I think he is American. But, he did reappear in the book several times.

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  4. This sounds fascinating. I do like books about books that help me understand how novels work. Another book I highly recommend is The Rhetoric of Fiction by Wayne Booth.

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    1. I agree with you. Any book that helps you understand and interpret the novel is great. Will have a look into Booth's book.

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