An exceptionally lazy, careless, and confused ramble through the world of fiction, How to Read a Novel is for the most part tediously banal, though punctuated by occasional moments of wit, and is all but ruined by frequent claims that are either bizarre or wrong – and too often, bizarrely wrong. The book seems to have been written in a hurry: it has a chatty, discursive style that is less charming than it is annoying, in that it implies a determination to use the greatest possible number of words to convey the fewest possible concepts. One sets down the book with the feeling of having been buttonholed for six endless hours at a cocktail party.
Sutherland begins by laying out the case for his book’s existence (or at least the case for one with a similar title, though that wouldn’t be this book): there are so many books published now that no individual can possibly read every novel of interest, and even so much as identifying such novels is made difficult by the sheer quantity of available titles. Therefore readers need some kind of guide to help them choose the “best” books from this avalanche. Fine so far; unfortunately, from the word “best” it is just a moment before he trots out hoary old Victorian terms like “lowbrow” and “highbrow,” and speaks of novels as having a “raising” or “lowering” effect, dismisses the Harry Potter series by comparing it to fast food, and finishes his introduction by delivering the first bizarre assertion of many: he maintains that it is “almost as difficult to read a novel well as it is to write one well.” Actually, it isn’t – just ask any novelist who also does criticism.
This unpromising start is followed directly by an extended contradiction. Having set up a hierarchical view of the value of fiction, having promised to be a guide, he admonishes the reader to take his own counsel and then makes a circumstantial case for the value of multiple interpretations. He could have reconciled the two positions by arguing that the “best” works would be those that support a multiplicity of readings, and although this position is weakly implied, he never quite works it out. In the end,he drops the whole matter and considers, in scatterbrained fashion, the evolution of books into their modern form. The level of disorganization is stunning: a few pages about the socioeconomic context of Robinson Crusoe veers bewilderingly into the economics of book promotion from the late 19th century to the present day; a chapter entitled “What do you do with the novel? Read it, listen to it, look at it?” implies that a comparison of paper books, audiobooks, and electronic media will follow, but what actually ensues is a mixed-up non-discussion of style, diction, realism in historical novels and authorial voice. He flits from one subject to the next, usually on the basis of some superficial similarity between the two. This free approach, when well done, can dazzle. Alas, here it is not well done; in fact it is half-baked.
Sutherland occasionally attains some focus. When he speaks of book covers, for instance, there is a witty moment when he considers the hilarious disparity between the dust jacket of the first British edition of Michel Houllebecq’s Atomised – a young woman wearing nothing but cotton underpants and an inviting look – and the novel’s hyper-pretentious, unsexy contents: “If, when you’re buying a book, you feel a tender hand on your genitals, the other hand is probably feeling your wallet.” Unfortunately, such moments of focused wit are rare. His chapters function less as arguments and more as free-association sessions, which eventually arrive at conclusions that are so banal as to not be worth illustrating at all. For instance: The cover of a novel doesn’t always reflect its contents. The author’s name can function as a brand. Author photos convey an idea about the author. Epigraphs can highlight the theme of a novel. Physical books are often more useful than their electronic or audio counterparts. Genre labels exist because bookstores have a need to organize things. Frankly, a bulleted list would have been a better format for these ideas.
As if all this weren’t bad enough, the errors of fact are too numerous to catalog in full. Early in the book, for example, he claims that Jonathan Franzen was forced by his publishers to accept Oprah Winfrey’s endorsement of The Corrections, when in fact Franzen was pleased to have the endorsement; it was only when he publicly voiced reservations about having the Oprah logo appear on “his” dust jacket that she rescinded the invitation to appear on her show. (In fact, Franzen later thanked Winfrey for her advocacy of his book.) Later on, Sutherland’s discussion of first lines trots out all the usual examples, but contains a notorious canard: Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, according to Sutherland, begins with the narrator dipping his madeleine in the cup of tea. Apparently he has either forgotten about the seventy-five pages that precede that moment, or he hasn’t read Proust. For a third example, he claims that J.G. Ballard was, in his 1973 novel Crash, the first author to use his own persona in his own name as the main character in a novel that is demonstrably not a memoir. This is wrong in two ways: for one thing, Henry Miller used this device forty years earlier, in Tropic of Cancer; for another, “Ballard” is not the main character in Crash but a bystander. It’s hard to know what to make of errors so egregious - that is, until he makes an even more startling error. In his chapter on the novel’s unparalleled capacity to humanize social issues, he writes that fiction “is the only place nowadays where you are likely to find any grown-up discussion of race” and goes on to characterize race as an “undiscussable topic” in America (his italics). From what I know and have experienced of our national discourse on race, this claim, with its patronizing adjective “grown-up,” is a flat insult to the millions of Americans who seriously confront the issue of race on a daily basis.
Perhaps these objections are too stringent for a book that is obviously meant to be taken as a casual and light work, rather than as a serious work of criticism. But if a discussion of fiction, however casual, is to be of any use as a guide, at a minimum this would require that the guide be wrong less often, go beyond the banal to present ideas of interest, and refrain from making specious and weird claims in almost every chapter. At the very least, the author should be consistently entertaining, rather than consistently baffling and infuriating. Unfortunately, How to Read a Novel fails on all these counts, a disappointment only magnified by the fact that its author, as a well-known and much-honored academic, really should have been capable of far better.