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What I'm reading right now

As I mentioned in an earlier post about the JASNA conference, I had the pleasure of meeting John Mullan and hearing him speak. I also purchased two of his books: HOW NOVELS WORK and ANONYMITY: The Secret History of English Literature.

My powers of concentration are still not what they ought to be due to fatigue and Benadryl (not necessarily in that order), but I have been working my way through HOW NOVELS WORK, and I must say that I am enjoying it a lot - and that those of you who are (a) avid readers or (b) writers would all probably enjoy this book - and enjoy learning from it.

Here's a taste of the Introduction:

Some books we read once, but some we go back to. The literature we most value is what we revisit. For special kinds of writing, repetition can be the whole point. The intense pleasures of poetry are usually understood as coming from rereadings. Popular poetry anthologies and radio programmes enact these pleasures, reminding us of what we already knew as much as introducing us to what is yet unknown. In the ultimate example of being able to return to what we once read, we may even have poems or parts of poems by heart, in store. In rare cases, readers will have fragments of novels - resonant opening lines, perhaps - preserved in their memories.

. . .

Going back to a novel that you have read before marks it out. The obvious definition of a 'classic' )a label still important to publishers of fiction) is a book that readers keep rereading. Given the sheer productivity of the fiction industry, it becomes more important thatn ever for any reader to possess a core of memorable novels. These are the books that have an afterlife, that can be gone back to. However, the process of returning to what has already been read, common enough in classrooms, is rarely imitated in most publicly accessible talk about novels. In newspapers, or on radio or television, analysing fiction most often takes the form of reviewing. This is necessarily a criticism of first impressions, largely aimed at potential rather than actual readers of any given novel. It is useful and often entertaining, but literary criticism should be something different. It should mean going back over a book you thought you knew, finding the patterns, or the inconsistencies, that you half-glimpsed before.

Mullan wrote a series of newspaper articles for The Guardian newspaper in England, putting contemporary fiction to the test of rereading and application of literary analysis. What he engages in is singular - not a review, not straight literary criticism. More like a primer on various literary techniques and tools using contemporary "book club" fiction as his jumping-off point, while applying academic and critical analysis along the way.

So far, I've made it through the chapters on "Beginning" (title, prologue, framing device, opening), "Narrating" (first-person narration, recollection, inadequate narrator, man writing as a woman, multiple narrators, skaz, the self-conscious novel, addressing the reader, omniscient narrator, point of view, tense, tense shift, free indirect style), and "People" (characterization, motivation, anti-hero, villain, real people, alter ego), and am midway through "Genre".

If you're looking for something that might help with your craft that is thoughtful, engaging, accessible and interesting (as well as being fun to read), HOW NOVELS WORK is for you.

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( 9 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 22nd, 2009 04:15 am (UTC)
Sheesh, you're good. One foot still on the gurney and you're back to being a daunting inspiration.

I've wondered about this book before -- thanks for the tip...
Oct. 22nd, 2009 11:59 pm (UTC)
It's very good. I still can't focus particularly well on things, and will undoubtedly end up starting it from the beginning again sometime in the future when my brain is actually working as it should, but I'm enjoying it nevertheless.
(Deleted comment)
Oct. 23rd, 2009 12:00 am (UTC)
Alas, I'm not able to concentrate for more than a few minutes at a time yet. It's terribly frustrating.
Oct. 22nd, 2009 02:13 pm (UTC)
Excellent. I need to pick this one up. Thanks for the rec!
Oct. 23rd, 2009 12:00 am (UTC)
It's the sort of thing I think you'll like.
Oct. 22nd, 2009 11:38 pm (UTC)
It's true, rereading is one test of a classic.
Oct. 23rd, 2009 12:01 am (UTC)
I like that he decided to apply that test to contemporary fiction. And it is interesting to read the results - some books he liked a lot better as a result of rereading and applying literary criticism techniques, and some he liked far less.
Oct. 26th, 2009 10:21 am (UTC)
Sounds like a book for me! I think I shall have to get myself a copy! Thanks!
Oct. 26th, 2009 04:00 pm (UTC)
I think you'll love it!
( 9 comments — Leave a comment )

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