Arts & Entertainment » Books

Blue afternoons

How to Read a Novelist captures writing life



When it comes to novelists, I tend to imagine an unruly, full-of-themselves bunch, prone to living the way their characters do, for better or for worse. I think of Hemingway, the hard-working, hard-drinking jet setter who was continuously having adventures and roaming about glamorous locales with a series of glamorous wives. In profiles, Hemingway is always quoted as giving lengthy pronouncements that you can't imagine a human actually saying in casual conversation. "I love to go back to Paris ... Walk all over the town and see where we made our mistakes and where we had our few bright ideas. And learn the form and try and pick winners in the blue, smoky afternoons, and then go out the next day to play them at Auteuil and Enghien," as he says in Lillian Ross' iconic 1950 New Yorker profile.

Funny enough, there aren't many Hemingway types living lavishly in How to Read a Novelist, a collection of book critic John Freeman's magazine profiles of authors. There, are, however, plenty of poetic statements that are almost as fantastically ridiculous. "It's kind of a rhapsody, all that nomenclature," Richard Ford is quoted as saying of the brand-name Americana in one of his novels. "But I don't think it's a rhapsody in a passive way." If you're the sort who's impatient with the pretentious side of literary analysis, you'll roll your eyesbut you'll likely keep reading, because writers also have a way of being intriguing.

Freeman, as he explains in the introduction, was first driven to love literature when he stumbled on John Updike's work after college. The former Indy book reviewer and Granta editor is now a New York City poet and author of The Tyranny of Email, about how online messaging has taken over our lives. Freeman takes the art of profiles quite seriously, writing, "The only thing an interviewer can do to capture what a novelist truly does is to make them talk and tell stories, and think aloud."

As a whole, How to Read a Novelist is an excellent bedside read for a lit fan, or for the moderately well-read person who'd like a primer to late 20th century and current authors. The nearly 60 novelists captured run the gamut and include Amy Tan, Dave Eggers and Günter Grass. (Freeman has said he made a point to include 16 women, though that still makes for a rather dude-heavy ratio.)

How to Read a Novelist - John Freeman - Paperback, FSG Originals - 384 pages, $15
  • How to Read a NovelistJohn FreemanPaperback, FSG Originals384 pages, $15

Some of Freeman's subjects are well past dues-paying, and he meets them as they lounge in SoHo lofts or weekend retreats at Cape Cod. (If there's any practical takeaway message from this book, it's that academia is the best guarantee of financial stability for a creative writer.) Others are still establishing their careers, like Hisham Matar and Mark Z. Danielewski. Some, like N'gugi wa Thiong'o, are living testaments to the fact that ideas can still be powerfully dangerous things with very real consequences. N'gugi was on a book tour in his native Kenya, where the government has persecuted and jailed him for his radical writings, when he was attacked and his wife was raped in front of him. Later on in the book we meet Salman Rushdie, whose work infamously incited riots and death threats in the '80s.

Not everyone recounts such heavy subject matter, though. Lighter musings and cheeky writers balance the weighty pieces. There's Margaret Atwood, who explains why she's written novels, poetry, children's books, sci-fi, thrillers, romances and critical essays by saying, "I think I'm this way because I never went to creative writing school, and nobody told me not to. Nobody said, 'You have to specialize,' or, 'For heaven's sake, control yourself.'"

How To Read A Novelist's scenes stretch far and wide, but the book still comes across as a cohesive read. It's tied together by Freeman's contemplative tone and simple narrative. He doesn't offer complete biographies so much as intimate snapshots of a person at a particular time and place. Some details that a more traditional profiler might have mentioned are lost, like whether Haruki Marukami has kept up with his three-pack-a-day cigarette habit since he started running. And Freeman recounts little things—David Foster Wallace talking fast and eating sushi with his hands, for instance—that are strangely memorable.

With descriptions of careers, motivations, work ethics and writing styles, there's much to learn in How to Read about how to be a writer—and also why, when other lines of work are less fraught. "There's this haunting fear that the thing you left out isn't going to be finally captured," Updike says in his interview with Freeman. It's an eternal motivation that any writer or reader can instantly understand.


Add a comment