Sam­pler of­fers a fes­ti­val of writ­ers

How to Read a Nov­el­ist

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ash­ley Hay Ash­ley Hay’s

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.