How to Read Novels Like a Professor
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How to Read Novels Like a Professor

Thomas C. Foster

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eBook - ePub

How to Read Novels Like a Professor

Thomas C. Foster

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About This Book

The follow-up and companion volume to the New York Times bestselling How to Read Literature Like a Professor —a lively and entertaining guide to understanding and dissecting novels to make everyday reading more enriching, satisfying, and fun

Of all the literary forms, the novel is arguably the most discussed... and fretted over. From Miguel de Cervantes's Don Quixote to the works of Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and today's masters, the novel has grown with and adapted to changing societies and technologies, mixing tradition and innovation in every age throughout history.

Thomas C. Foster—the sage and scholar who ingeniously led readers through the fascinating symbolic codes of great literature in his first book, How to Read Literature Like a Professor —now examines the grammar of the popular novel. Exploring how authors' choices about structure—point of view, narrative voice, first page, chapter construction, character emblems, and narrative (dis)continuity—create meaning and a special literary language, How to Read Novels Like a Professor shares the keys to this language with readers who want to get more insight, more understanding, and more pleasure from their reading.

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Pickup Lines and Open(ing) Seductions, or Why Novels Have First Pages

EVER WATCH PEOPLE IN bookstores? They pull a book from a shelf, read the cover, then the back cover, then the benefits page (that little number with all the blurbs on it, if it’s a paperback), and then…what? You know this one. Hardly anyone I’ve ever noticed has leapt into the middle of Chapter 23, so that first page had better deliver the goods. Otherwise, the book goes back on the shelf. You can’t read ’em all.
We need first pages—and so do novelists. Right from the top, a novel begins working its magic on readers. Perhaps more remarkably, readers also begin working their magic on the novel. The beginning of a novel is, variously, a social contract negotiation, an invitation to a dance, a list of rules of the game, and a fairly complex seduction. I know, I know—seduction? Seems extreme, doesn’t it?
But that’s what’s going on at the beginning of a novel. We’re being asked to commit a lot of time and energy to an enterprise with very little in the way of guarantee of what’s in it for us. That’s where the seduction comes in. And it wants to tell us what it thinks is important, so much so that it can’t wait to get started. Perhaps more importantly, it wants us to get involved. When it’s over, we may feel wooed, adored, appreciated, or abused, but it will have been an affair to remember. The opening of a novel is an invitation to come inside and play. The first page, in this context, is not so much a guarantee as a promissory note: “Hey,” it says, “I’ve got something good here. You’ll like it. You can trust me. Give me a whirl.” And that’s why the very first line is so important. Try a few of these on for size.
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    “What’s it going to be, then?”
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    “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.”
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    “This is the saddest story I ever heard.”
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    “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.”
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    “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a man in possession of a fortune must be in want of a wife.”
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    “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 Ibu Fatoudi, Emir of Ludamar.”
Now how can you not want to read those novels? They pique the interest. What flowers? Why saddest? And for heaven’s sake, who is Mungo Park and what’s with the bare buttocks? Those were the first words many of us ever read from a writer who then called himself T. Coraghessan Boyle but has since mercifully shortened the middle name to its initial consonant, in a novel called Water Music. The book proved to be just as wild as the opening promised, full of outrageous events, exuberant language, astonishing surprises, and zany humor. Boyle’s subsequent novels and stories have shown equal panache in the matter of first pages.
Is the first page the whole novel? Of course not. I once asked in class what group had the best hooks in rock music. The response, not from a burly guy but from a surprisingly demure-looking woman, was AC/DC. Works for me. Now, that doesn’t make the lads from down under the best rock group ever, any more than writing the best hooks since Chuck Berry makes Angus Young another Mozart. But his hooks sure are catchy. So are Boyle’s. And hooks get novels started. Get readers started. Offer insights into coming attractions. Make us want to read and begin teaching us how to read it.
Say what? We can even make a general proposition here, the Law of Getting Started: The opening is the first lesson in how to read the novel. We have to learn to read every new novel, so the novel must be a series of lessons on how to read this one. Unconvinced? Think about it. Is a Spenser mystery by Robert B. Parker anything like The Sound and the Fury? Aside from both having lots of words and justified right margins? But the big things—narrative style, method of character presentation, revelation of consciousness, dialogue, plot? You can make a lot of claims for old Bill Faulkner, but compelling plotting and zingy dialogue aren’t among them. Now you might think this means Faulkner is hard to read and any knucklehead can read Parker, but it’s not so simple. Parker gives Spenser a certain mind-set that we have to learn, a certain rhythm to his narration, friends and associates who take some getting used to. Lots more people may enjoy reading him than Faulkner, but there’s still a learning process we go through when we open his book. The other difference between what’s often called genre or category fiction and the “literary sort” is the amount of change from one novel to the next. Parker’s lessons carry over pretty well from book to book, so if you’ve read Looking for Rachel Wallace you can manage A Catskill Eagle pretty well. Faulkner, on the other hand, rarely does quite the same thing twice, so while some strategies we learn reading The Sound and the Fury will help if we open Light in August or Absalom, Absalom!, each new book will present new and different challenges. And we’ll notice the changes on the first page. That’s where the new lesson begins.
Take, for instance, that first sentence from Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, the one about the colonel, the firing squad, and the ice. Almost everything we need to know about reading this novel is present in this first sentence. It establishes the main family of the novel and the turbulent times in which they live, as evidenced by the firing squad. It emphasizes the importance of marvels, not in the ice but in the verb “discover,” which suggests how miraculous this substance must have been to the child in, as we shortly discover, a pre-electrified equatorial Colombia. We know what sort of voice is telling the story, how it manages information, what sorts of words it chooses—and plenty more follows in the next two paragraphs. And it’s not just fabulous novels by South American Nobel laureates that accomplish this sort of feat. Robert Parker mysteries, Anita Shreve domestic dramas, Dan Brown thrillers, and this month’s Harlequin romances, as well as classics by Hardy, Hawthorne, and Hemingway, do the same thing: tell us how to go about reading them. They can’t help it, really. Whatever a novel tells us first is information—about who, what, where, when, how, why. About intent. About irony. About what the writer is up to this time.
That 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. First pages convey information without half trying, but they’re always trying.
Yeah, but…eighteen? I mean, five or six, or even seven, but eighteen? Conservatively. There are probably many other things we can glean from a first page, but here are eighteen beauties.
  1. Style. Short or long sentences? Simple or complex? Rushed or leisurely? How many modifiers—adjectives and adverbs and such? The first page of any Hemingway novel will impress us with short declarative sentences and a strong sense that the writer was badly frightened in infancy by words ending in “ly.” Any first page by an American detective novelist—John D. or Ross Macdonald, say, or Raymond Chandler or Mickey Spillane or even Linda Barnes—will convince us that the writer has read Hemingway. In Spillane’s case, with no great comprehension.
  2. Tone. Every book has a tone. Is it elegiac, or matter-of-fact, or ironic? That opening from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a man in possession of a fortune must be in want of a wife,” is a tonal masterpiece. It distances the speaker from the source of the “truth” while giving her permission to trot out an ironic statement about wives running through husbands’ fortunes and wealthy men being more desirable than poor ones. “In want of” cuts two ways at least.
  3. Mood. Similar to tone but not quite the same. The previous item is about how the voice sounds; this one is about how it feels about what it’s telling. However we describe the tone of The Great Gatsby, the mood of the narration, in Nick Carraway’s person, is one of regret, guilt, and even anger, all of which sneak in between his overly reasonable-sounding statements about mulling over advice from his father and the disparities of privilege. So what is it, we wonder at once, that he’s not quite saying here?
  4. Diction. What kinds of words does the novel use? Are they common or rare? Friendly or challenging? Are the sentences whole or fractured, and if the latter, on purpose or accidentally? Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange—which begins with the deceptively simple query, “What’s it going to be, then?”—has the most remarkable diction of any novel I know. His narrator, the barely educated young thug Alex, speaks with an Elizabethan elaboration worthy of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. His insults are colorful and baffling to his adversaries, his descriptions and praise effusive, his curses wonders of invention, and his language shot through with a made-up teen slang, Nadsat, based largely on Slavic words. And we get the first inklings of his linguistic temperament in the novel’s opening passages. This is merely the extreme example; every novel has its own diction, and every word chosen details it further.
  5. Point of view. The first issue isn’t who is telling the story in terms of identity. Indeed, for most of the novels we’ll ever read, there is no “who” in that sense. But who relative to the story and its characters—that we can learn straight off. Is this a he/she” story or an “I” story? When “I” shows up we expect to meet a character, major or minor, and we immediately have our suspicions aroused. That discussion, however, can wait. If the narrative employs “he” and “she” for persons in the story, with no “I” in sight, we can be fairly safe in assuming this is a more distant, third-person narration. If the narration employs “you,” all bets are off and we head for shelter. Happily, second-person narrations are rare, but they are, like Italo Calvino’s experimental If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler and Tom Robbins’s Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas, very likely to be strange experiences. We can get fooled in all this; as with all literary rules, this one exists to be broken. Sometimes a character-narrator will hide culpability behind a mock third-person viewpoint, or an outside narrator will employ “I” as a narrative gambit. Even with such tricky business, though, we sometimes get hints in the first paragraphs.
  6. Narrative presence. Now we can speak of that other who. Is this voice disembodied or possessed by a personage, inside or outside the story? Is it a servant talking about her masters, a victim talking about his persecutors, a perpetrator speaking of his victims? They often give us hints right away. With first-person narrators, the “presence” is pretty clear. Hemingway’s Jake Barnes (The Sun Also Rises) and Fredric Henry (A Farewell to Arms) make themselves known right away; their personality imprints itself on the text from sentence one. But what about third-person narrators? In the eighteenth century, narrators were often full of personality, genial companions who, like ourselves (so went the conceit), were men and women of the world, who understood what people were like, who were amused by the foibles of their neighbors. We see such poses in Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones or Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. In the following era, Charles Dickens’s storytelling presence insinuates his way into Our Mutual Friend in the first five words, “In these times of ours,” announcing that the narrator will be a very involved participant in the tale, a passionate observer and commentator. By the time we get to the twentieth century, that third-person narrator is often impersonal, detached, cool, as in Hemingway or Anita Brookner. Compare that Dickens opening to this one you probably read at school: “He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.” This voice is more aloof, less likely to get in there and mix it up emotionally than his Victorian counterpart.
  7. Narrative attitude toward characters and events. How does the narrator feel about the people and action in the novel? Austen’s narrators are generally amused, slightly aloof, a little superior. Dickens’s tend to be earnest, involved, direct (if third-person); naïve, earnest, fond (if first-person). Flaubert’s narrator in Madame Bovary is famously cool and impersonal, largely in reaction to the overheated involvement of narrators in the previous romantic era. In rejecting the extant cliché, Flaubert created the narrative cliché that would predominate for much of the next century.
  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? In what part of the narrator’s life, if she’s a character? That “many years later” of the García Márquez 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 father’s hand to rise to power and fall from it. But it also says something else magical: “once upon a time.” This is a kind of fairy tale, it says, about an exotic place and time, neither of which exists anymore (nowhere can be that backward, he hints), that were special in their own time. Any novelist who isn’t jealous about those three words alone isn’t very serious about craft.
  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? Nicholson Baker’s little gem, The Mezzanine takes place—all of it—during the time it takes its narrator to ride an escalator from the first floor to the aforementioned destination. In order to pull off that stunt, the writer must elongate time to the extreme, relying on flashbacks and digressions, and that strategy shows up right away, as it must.
  10. Place. Okay, setting, but also more than mere setting. Place is a sense of things, a mode of thought, a way of seeing. Take that T. C. Boyle opening I quote above. In the second paragraph, we learn that Mungo Park, a Scotsman, is an explorer looking for the Niger River who has taken a serious wrong turn. Place here is both locale and story. This—the tent, the continent, the country—is where he is, to be sure. But this is also where he’s an outsider, the leading edge of nascent imperial intentions, and a blunderer who keeps finding himself in variations of his current humiliating situation. In that sense, place, the immediate place, becomes motif: time after time we will see Mungo blunder into disastrous situations through total ignorance of the nature, culture, and geography—in other words, of place. Which leads us to…
  11. Motif. Stuff that happens again and again. Sorry about the technical jargon, but that’s what it is. Motif can be image, action, language pattern, anything that happens again and again. Like Mungo and his recurrent disasters based on cultural arrogance. Like miracles and the colonel’s narrow escapes in One Hundred Years of Solitude. Like the flowers in Mrs. Dalloway.
  12. Theme. Stop groaning—there won’t be a test. Theme is the bane of all tenth-grade English students, but it’s also about, well, aboutness. Story is what gets a novel going and what we focus on, but theme is one of the things tha...

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