Sampler offers a festival of writers
How to Read a Novelist
By John Freeman Text Publishing, 288p, $29.99
IT was late in the winter season of writers festivals when I sat down with John Freeman’s How to Read a Novelist. At Byron Bay I watched Nobel prize-winning scientist Peter Doherty entrance three audiences with three riffs on three sets of topics from the same book. In Brisbane I saw British novelist Chris Cleave seduce a rapt crowd by revealing that his observational talents sprang from being the kind of outsider-kid who knew, to this day, that the correct answer to the question ‘‘ What football team do you support?’’ was ‘‘ What football team do you support?’’, while the subsequently Booker Prize-shortlisted Indian poet Jeet Thayil confessed that where poets could dance on tables until four in the morning, a novelist needed sleep and stamina, and a healthy diet and lifestyle.
There’s an art to these performances, something ephemeral that balances the sell with the reveal, the confessional with the professional. And with these things in mind I picked up this book and started to read.
A collation of 55 short profiles written between 2003 and April this year for a world of publications including Poets and Writers, The Independent, The Jerusalem Post and The Australian, this book scoops in everyone from Salman Rushdie and A. S. Byatt to Turkish novelist Elif Shafak, Chinese novelist Mo Yan and Kenyan novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Almost all are predicated on the appearance of the author’s new volume.
That’s not to say this is an assemblage of spruiks: here’s Haruki Murakami on the importance of a repetitious life for a functional imagination. Here’s David Foster Wallace comparing the composition of nonfiction to ‘‘ standing and watching while a tsunami is bearing down on you’’. Here’s Kiran Desai, looking ‘‘ the part of the glamorous young novelist, but distrustful of this particular kind of literary infamy, because she knows it has nothing to do with the writing’’. And here’s Philip Roth confronting the brutal truth that it doesn’t matter whether his book or Joan Didion’s is the next to strike people’s fancy, because ‘‘ it doesn’t change the fact that reading is not a source of sustenance or pleasure for a group that used to read both’’.
Freeman’s interviews transcend the mechanics of the encounters and, beyond smart and knowledgeable, he’s the kind of interlocutor who asks a sideways question, then pays attention to the space and circumstance of the answer as much as to its words.
At 37, Freeman has consolidated a wideranging freelance career (the profiles acknowledge original publication in 34 places) into two years at the National Book Critics’ Circle in the US, his own first book ( The Tyranny of Email), several prizes and his appointment, in 2009, as editor of Granta. And he’s better than good at what he does: his encounter with Don DeLillo here is pitchperfect, from an opening in which the unrecognisable literary superstar is barred from his own publisher’s offices by a zealous security guard to the impeccably executed tic of describing how the author speaks, rather than transcribing his words: ‘‘ His talk skitters along these questions for a while, then slides down a shale hill of silence, into full-blown reverie.’’ In a single line about Joyce Carol Oates — ‘‘ ‘ which book are you here to talk about?’ she demands, cloudy with puzzlement’’ — Freeman pins everything a reader might suspect about her frightening productivity and uber-businesslike persona.
The strongest piece by far, however, is Freeman’s introductory essay about his personal worship of John Updike and a faux-pas collision with his idol during the course of one encounter: ‘‘ In response to his question about what I was doing up there, I said I was getting divorced. The interview came to a dead halt.’’ As a piece of writing it has grace and honesty, and a perfect — and perfectly self-deprecating — narrative arc.
All of which points to something unexpectedly odd about the subsequent 55 chapters. In the normal course of most pieces of writing, some things garner more weight than others, narratives ebb and flow, and then there are bursts of climax, ecstatic or discomfiting. But nearly all of these profiles conform to the same length, between three and four pages — a stretch that makes sense in the shared space of magazines or newspapers — and it proves surprisingly hard to read 55 pieces of almost identical dimensions. It results in a kind of literary indigestion, particularly given the way books under review tend to be read, headlong, single-mindedly, in one or two long sittings.
It’s a lovely package, beautifully presented with authors’ portraits by Text’s in-house designer W. H. Chong, and I was frustrated to suspect that I hadn’t been its best reader. It’s a dipping book, I think, where the long-haul read left me wanting more of Freeman’s observations, or more of the novelists themselves, rather than the sustainedly rich and busy patchwork of their combination.
And then, after two days of grouchiness about this, I finally understood the book’s true shape and purpose — I saw the sum of its parts. It’s like a sampler or a mix-tape, designed to send its readers off on a different hunt altogether. Because despite that wonderful title, the question is not so much how to read a novelist as why a reader might want to. The thing the novelist wants you to read, after all, is not some words about them but the words they have written themselves. And off you go, from Freeman’s attractive and accessible pages — as from a successful festival session — to do just that.
John Freeman’s book is a literary mix-tape