‘How to Read a Novelist’: encountering literary all-stars
John Freeman’s engaging book “How to Read a Novelist” collects his encounters with authors over the years, from literary lions to emerging young stars. He discusses his book in conversation with author Nicola Griffith on Wednesday, Oct. 23, at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co.
Assistant features editor
John Freeman and Nicola Griffith
John Freeman will discuss “How to Read a Novelist” in conversation with Seattle author Nicola Griffith at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or elliottbaybook.com).
Though its title has shades of a Ph.D. thesis, John Freeman’s new collection, “How to Read a Novelist” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 384 pp., $15), is not a work of criticism, but rather an engaging, accessible series of encounters with dozens of the best writers working in the last 15 years.
From canonical authors like Nadine Gordimer and Philip Roth, to midcareer heavyweights like Peter Carey and Ian McEwan, to young writers like Jonathan Safran Foer and Edwidge Danticat, this volume fields a literary all-star team.
Each vignette begins with a few-paragraph précis on the author, but “How to Read a Novelist” doesn’t attempt to be encyclopedic. Published in various outlets over the last decade and a half, the pieces are snapshots of the subjects at different points in their careers. We meet Norman Mailer as the Lion in Winter, on the occasion of his final novel. Jonathan Safran Foer we find lecturing to a high school class as his sophomore book is released.
A prolific and well-regarded book reviewer (including for this paper), Freeman was until recently the editor of the esteemed literary journal Granta. As such, he is a consummate literary insider, and one can feel in the pieces his familiarity and comfort with his subjects (though he would have done well to mention that some of the writers are clients of his partner, the power agent Nicole Aragi).
He is good at getting writers to open up, including press-shy types like the late David Foster Wallace and John Irving, who we learn has built a “full-size wrestling arena” onto his massive Vermont home.
Some of the collection’s best moments come when the writers discuss the finer points of their own work (in the same way The Paris Review’s “Art of Fiction” interviews can be so fascinating).
Toni Morrison is particularly elucidating on this front. “The language has to have its own music,” she tells Freeman. “ I don’t mean ornate because I want it to work with no sound, while you read it. Still, it has to have that spoken quality: It’s oral — a blend of standard English and the vernacular street language.”
There is a persistent anxiety in critical circles — and certainly in the academy — about reveling too much in the biographical details of an author’s life and how they relate to the work. Should it matter, for instance, that the most memorable creation of serial adulterer John Updike is Rabbit Angstrom, a serial adulterer? The English departments will say not a lick, but the general public couldn’t feel more differently.
The title here is a play on that notion: “How to Read a Novelist” can be read to mean “How to read a novelist’s work” or “How to read the novelist as a person.” And Freeman is tacitly frank about quenching the reader’s thirst for revealing details of a writer’s life and personality, and allowing us to decide for ourselves how much to have them inform our thoughts on the writing.
As Nobel laureate Gunter Grass tells Freeman, “There is always the reaction of the critic ... but the readers are different” — and this is very much a reader’s book.
And Freeman stands in for the curious common reader. “I have always felt there is something electrifying about meeting a novelist,” he writes in the introduction. “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.”
Though as John Updike explains to him, there is a point at which the balance can tip. “A work of art, a work of literary art,” Updike says, “is an attempt to make a kind of an object, with the mystery objects have. You can look at it in one way, find another light, and see another. All these breaches of [artists’] privacy are in danger of taking the art out of it.”
Brian Thomas Gallagher: 206-382-2827 or firstname.lastname@example.org