Books on novels

I worked hard on my funny tan lines this weekend. As of now, I’m pretty much ruined for tank tops and swimsuits for the rest of the spring and summer, unless I don’t mind looking a little freakish. I’ve now got a tan line on my upper arms and am working on a good one just above my ankle and a little above my knees. Pretty soon, I’ll have one on my wrists from my cycling gloves.

I went on a lovely hike yesterday with Hobgoblin and his students. (By the way, if any of you want to see a picture of us, check out Hobgoblin’s post — I’m the one in the red t-shirt.) I spent most of the hike talking with one of the students about books. Doesn’t that sound like a great way to spend a Saturday?

But I meant to write about an article from The New York Review of Books, “Storms Over the Novel,” by Hermione Lee. She reviews a whole bunch of books on the novel, and the list itself is intriguing as a potential source of reading material. Here’s the list of books she discusses:

The Curtain: An Essay in Seven Parts, by Milan Kundera, translated from the French by Linda Asher

Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, by Jane Smiley

The Things That Matter: What Seven Classic Novels Have to Say About the Stages of Life, by Edward Mendelson

How Novels Work, by John Mullan

How to Read a Novel: A User’s Guide, by John Sutherland

The Novel, Volume 1: History, Geography and Culture, edited by Franco Moretti

The Novel, Volume 2: Forms and Themes, edited by Franco Moretti

Nation & Novel: The English Novel from Its Origins to the Present Day, by Patrick Parrinder

I’ve read the Smiley book, and liked it pretty well, but the others I haven’t yet looked at. I’m intrigued by the Kundera book; I’ve read some good reviews of it, although the one I liked the best was Arthur Phillips’s review from Harper’s magazine where he argued, if I remember correctly, that Kundera doesn’t follow his own prescriptions for what the best novels do, although Phillips admires Kundera’s novels greatly.

The Mendelson book sounds pretty good, although I’m worried about it being a bit preachy; Hermione Lee talks about his “strong, didactic tone,” and this is how she describes Mendelson’s writing:

He makes heartfelt, idiosyncratic, and illuminating diagnoses of seven novels by women writers (Mary Shelley, Charlotte and Emily Brontë, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf) as humane lessons in how (or how not) to live a moral life.

I like “heartfelt, idiosyncratic, and illuminating,” but I’m unsure about the “humane lessons” on living a moral life part. I do think that novels can teach us things, but I’m not sure that living a moral life is one of them.

The John Mullan book is one of the most interesting here; Mullan is an 18C scholar whose criticism I’ve read and liked, and his book on the novel is about form and structure, which I’d like to know more about. Lee calls the book:

a modest, helpful, and sensible diagnosis of novelistic strategies—beginnings and endings, paratexts and intertexts, first- and third-person narratives, present and past tenses, inadequate and multiple narrators, and the like, drawing on mainly well-known examples from Samuel Richardson to Philip Roth.

I’ll probably never read John Sutherland’s book, however; Lee’s comment that “it ought to have been called How to Talk Knowingly About a Novel Without Actually Reading It” would have turned me off if I hadn’t already heard some negative things about the book. He gives bits of advice such as don’t bother to read every word but skim now and then — which I’m highly unlikely ever to follow. No, this book is not for me.

I am tempted, however, although also a bit frightened, by those Franco Moretti books. I came across Volume 1 in my local library, which surprised me, as I didn’t think my library would have anything so scholarly. It looked jam packed with fascinating information about the novel, but it also looked dense and difficult — not a bad thing at all, but it means I’ll need some energy to tackle it. The volumes are collections of articles by many different authors on the novel’s history and its forms. Each volume is almost $100, so it looks like I won’t be owning my own copy any time soon, unfortunately.

Lee doesn’t say a whole lot about the last book on her list by Patrick Parrinder, but Amazon says this:

What is ‘English’ about the English novel, and how has the idea of the English nation been shaped by the writers of fiction? How do the novel’s profound differences from poetry and drama affect its representation of national consciousness? Nation and Novel sets out to answer these questions by tracing English prose fiction from its late medieval origins through its stories of rogues and criminals, family rebellions and suffering heroines, to the present-day novels of immigration.

Doesn’t that sound fascinating?

Lee writes a bit about her experience as chair of the judges for the Man Booker prize, and she has good things to say about what makes novels novels — there’s a lot in her article that I haven’t mentioned here, so if you are interested, check it out.


Filed under Books, Life, Lists

14 responses to “Books on novels

  1. Oh, remember that LRB chap I quoted from about this thoughts on what makes a novel a novel? He was reviewing those very same volumes of Moretti’s. He thought them quite good and not entirely western-focused as some essays discussed the development of the novel in eastern cultures.


  2. Thanks for pointing out Lee’s article! I love stuff like this. I have the Mendelson book on my shelf and hope to get to it sometime this year. I’m really interested in the Moretti books, though I read a reivew of them in Bookforum awhile back that said the English volumes are condensed from the original which was something like four or five volumes. Very disappointing that the publisher would do something like that. Nice photo too by the way. Finally, the face behind the book! 🙂


  3. LK

    I just printed the article so I can read on the bus home. I think it will be a very good source for more TBRs!


  4. That sounds like an interesting article–I will have to go and check it out. My pile of magazines is slowly growing–I feel like I will never catch up. I have heard negative things about the Sutherland book as well, and don’t think I will be tempted. I am interested in the Smiley Kundera books, though. The Parrinder also sounds interesting as well–I had not heard of it. By the way–I saw the photo on the Hobgoblins blog yesterday and was wondering if that was you. I am assuming the Hobgoblin is the guy next to the dog? 🙂 It sounds like a fun day out!


  5. JCR

    I find little comfort on books about the novel, really… they strike me as those “Learn how to Write a Novel in 12 Easy steps” sort of books… I have a bad habit of buying books by Michael Dirda and Maureen Corrigan… they write books about the madness that it is to be totally in love with reading and how it shapes your life, etc. I guess I just want to know that there are people out there just as crazy as I am about reading.


  6. I have this article sitting on my coffee table, unread so far. You just inspired me to read it! And I dig the picture – it’s fun putting a face to the name.


  7. Yes, Imani, and that does sound very good, to include other perspectives besides the Western one. That makes me more eager to check it out.

    Stefanie, Yes, it IS disappointing that they wouldn’t publish the original version with all the volumes.

    LK, definitely a good source of reading material; I’m looking forward to reading a few of them myself.

    Danielle, yeah, the Hobgoblin has his arm around the dog. It feels a bit better being able to refer you to a picture on another blog instead of posting one myself.

    JCR, I like books about reading for that same reason — it’s such a pleasure to share the pleasure of it with somebody else!

    Courtney, I think you’ll like the article, and yeah, I do like to get a sense of what bloggers look like when I can …


  8. Pingback: In Defense of John Sutherland « Turning Pages

  9. I’m glad you posted about this article Dorothy. I lost some respect for Ms. Lee. Her comments on Sutherland’s book brought her whole article into question for me. I posted some examples on my site.
    It was fun seeing the picture of you and the Hobgoblin. It’s nice to put faces with all the great writing.


  10. What an interesting list of books, Dorothy! I am most certainly going to be checking these out (but not the Sutherland – don’t like him much). Your commentary on each book is extremely helpful!


  11. Ugh. More books to add to my TBR list. Maybe I’ll start with just one, and the Parrinder, as you say, does sound fascinating enough to be it.


  12. I’ll make sure to check out your post on the Sutherland book, Brad, and thank you for the nice compliment!

    Litlove, I’m glad you found the list useful! And Emily, so sorry 🙂


  13. I’m very tempted by the Moretti volumes. They don’t seem like the sort of books that I’m likely to make my way through systematically enough to meet a library due date though, and the price is steep…


  14. Yeah, that is a problem. There’s no way I could read much in the three weeks I’d have from the public library. However, if my college library lets me check out books for a longer period, I may have more luck there …


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