Tuesday, 8 May 2007

How novels work

I'm a member of book group and our choice for April was How Novels Work by John Mullan – or rather, how novels work (sic). I know these groups should be more correctly called 'reading groups' but for some reason in the UK most of us who belong to one refer to them as book groups.

Our group of twelve – members of which I shall henceforth refer to as groupies - has been meeting for nearly eleven years now. Whichever member chooses the book of the month also presents it and hosts the group (8pm, wine and nibbles). We choose a few months ahead – so we can read to suit our lifestyles – and, apart from being cost conscious (the novel should be out in paperback), we've found it best if the person presenting has already read their choice. This cuts down on real duds.

Although 70% of what we choose is fiction, we occasionally read a play, poetry or biography to ring the changes. A few of our group had been to hear John Mullan talk and they said he was absolutely brilliant, so when it was suggested we do his book we were all up for it: it might help us analyse our monthly book choice. The book is only available in hardback but we all happily coughed up £12.99.

John Mullan says in his introduction that it's striking that so much talk about books is about content – the story – and not about form and technique. So, based on a previous column in the Guardian, he's written a book about how novels work rather than what they contain. The previous articles are now all neatly grouped by the topics they examine.

I'm delighted with anything that promotes literary criticism because it niggles me when we only discuss the story at meetings - why? we've all read it - and not the techniques. And the topics covered in how novels work show readers that there's more to writing a novel than just telling a good story.

All of us groupies admired the book, most enjoyed it, half of us finished it, a couple didn't get past the first few chapters. It is, admittedly, not a book to read at one sitting; more a book to dip into and digest a chapter at a time. A good reference book to use when the need or desire arises.

Mullan proposes that, "Behind the reading group is what might be thought of as a tenet of literary criticism: that you don't know what you think of a book until you have heard what others think."

This statement could be construed as derogatory but our group often find this applies – to an extent - to many of the works we read at our meetings; although it's not that we don't know what we think of a book, or whether we enjoyed it or not, but that other groupies open our eyes to features or facts we weren't fully appreciative of. We leave the meeting feeling that we've got more out of the book since discussing it.

Mullan points out in the introduction that his work "is necessarily a criticism of first impressions, largely aimed at potential rather than actual readers of any given novel." Throughout, as examples of his chosen topics, he cites particular contempory novels and juxtaposes or compares them with 'classics'.

But this method, which is admirable, is possibly more useful to the reader if they've already read the literary examples. It's like anything – to describe a place, a taste or an experience, for example, means little to the listener until one has experienced it for oneself.

How novels work is simply too packed with examples and new concepts to remember them all and will most likely be used as - or was intended as - a crib by an individual before presenting a title to their co-readers.

Most of our group said that they would tackle how novels work again once they had read all the works quoted: the topics should then be more understandable and more memorable. So Prof. Mullan has achieved possibly more than he set out to: he's encouraged us to read more (literary) books as well as criticize (correctly) how novels work.


Book Note: another book of the ilk that I think is excellent is The Art of Fiction by Prof. David Lodge (1992). It's similar to John Mullan's in form and in that it makes literary criticism accessible. However, a previous publication on the subject, The Sense of Ending by Prof. Frank Kermode (1967), is the work of a brilliant man but one who is obscurely academic; the sort of work that John Mullan might describe as "designedly inaccessible."

No comments: