In Defense of John Sutherland

April 23, 2007

Dorothy’s recent post led me to an article by Hermione Lee reviewing recent books written about novels. I was a bit surprised by the review of John Sutherland’s How to Read a Novel, because I read the book a couple of months ago. It wasn’t a heavyweight, enchanting page-turner, like Hermione’s recent 900 page biography of Edith Wharton. It was rather fun, and had many interesting digressions into the whole world of the novel and the reader.

Ms. Lee’s point about the book’s title is valid- it is, admittedly misleading. Sutherland’s first sentence states “An alternative title for this book might be ‘Reading in an Age of Plenty’ or, more eye-catchingly, ‘Reading through the Avalanche’.” Her comment that the novel should have been called “How to Talk Knowingly About a Novel Without Actually Reading It,” simply has nothing to do with the content of the book. Methinks she must have some ax to grind. Sutherland’s premise that there are a deluge of novels in today’s world and that the reader should spend some time choosing what to read next is valid. I think that is clearly in evidence based on the number of bloggers consistently discussing their growing TBR piles.

Lee states-

The book is full of tips, thought necessary in today’s “mind-boggling” age of fiction overload, for finding out quickly whether a novel might be to your taste: “Turn to page 69 of any book and read it. If you like that page, buy the book. It works.” “If a book has chapter titles, then they are worth scanning before purchase.” On no account read every word, there simply isn’t time: “surf and zap…concentrate from time to time where the offering seems genuinely interesting.” If a book is difficult, go for the movie: “It helps get into the book version of Henry James’s The Wings of the Dove or The Golden Bowl…to have seen the films first.”

The page 69 trick, attributed in the book to Marshall McLuhan, was stated by Sutherland in this way-

“For the unprofessional searcher for the best novel to read, word-of-mouth, intuition, powerful browsing and McLuhan’s page 69 test remain the soundest first moves. At the very least, you will make your own mistakes.”

“On no account, read every word. There simply isn’t time.” – note the lack of quotes- in the article. These are Lee’s words, not Sutherland’s. The surf and zap statement was written in this context-

“‘I’ve read the newspaper’, we say, meaning ‘I’ve glanced at the headlines, scanned the letter page. decided not to bother with the editorials, looked up the soccer results and taken in my favorite columnist.’ You can gut novels the same way- but it is hardly ‘reading’…. Nowadays, it seems to me, something like the ‘surf and zap’ approach is required. As with satellite tv and its hundred of channels, one has to skim through, stop where it seems interesting, zap the commercials and other impertinent material, concentrate from time to time where the offering seems genuinely interesting.”

Here is Mr. Sutherland’s words regarding reading a novel-

“Two more humble assumptions are constant: 1)Novels are things to be enjoyed; 2)the better we read them, the more enjoyment we will derive from them. A clever engagement with a novel is, in my opinion, one of the more noble functions of human intelligence. Reading is not a spectator sport, but a participatory activity. Done well, a good reading is as creditable as a 10-scoring high dive. It is, I would maintain, almost as difficult to read a novel well as to write one well.”

The movie statement is out of context as well. Please allow me to add some context:

“films…can serve as useful gateways to fiction- especially demanding fiction. It helps get into the book version of Henry Jame’s The Wings of the Dove or The Golden Bowl -two of the more demanding novels in the canon – to have seen the 1997 and 2000 films first.
But here too, you should be careful. One of the disadvantages of viewing, or previewing, a screen version of a novel, is that you can ‘fix’ your mental imagery too rigidly – infringe your privilege as a reader of casting the parts, setting the scene and playing out the narrative yourself.
Who, for example, when embarking on their annual reading of Pride and Prejudice wants, every year, to have the nipples and wet shirt of Colin Firth intruding between them and the picture of Darcy evoked by the text?”

There is more to be said, but I won’t belabor the point. I’m disappointed in Hermione Lee. I actually had the Edith Wharton biography in my hand last weekend, but opted for something else because it seemed a little intimidating at the time. I have read good things about her Virginia Woolf biography as well. But having read this crappy spin she put on another’s efforts, I’m doubt I will give her a chance.

Sutherland’s book wasn’t great, but it delivered what it was intended to, and it didn’t deserve this attack. I found it interesting, and rather enjoyed it.

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5 Responses to “In Defense of John Sutherland”

  1. Stefanie Says:

    Don’t be too hard on Lee, we all make mistakes sometimes. Her Woolf biography is excellent. And I still have the sutherland book on my TBR list because of your great review of it.

  2. litlove Says:

    This is a very interesting post that highlights how reading is almost always about what we hear, rather than the actual words on the page. It is possible that Lee and Sutherland aren’t fond of each other in real life. Their paths will undoubtedly have crossed a lot in the tiny UK literary media world, and Sutherland is quite a brusque argumentative chap, ready to pick a fight. But you defend his right to be read carefully very well.

  3. Brad Says:

    Sefanie – I know she is an excellent biographer. I almost bought the Edith Wharton biography last weekend, but just couldn’t bring myself to add another book of that length to the waiting to be read pile. I likely will at some point.

    Litlove – Good points. Sutherland makes the point in his book about the value of book reviews, especially the awful out-of-context blurbs that appear on the back of the book itself.

  4. Dorothy W. Says:

    Thanks for the context Brad; I can see how it makes Sutherland’s book look less silly and frivolous.

  5. Bybee Says:

    “…who wants to have the wet shirt and nipples of Colin Firth intruding…?

    Hmmm.


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