A Little History of Literature
Yale, 288pp, £14.99
How to Read a Novelist
Corsair, 384pp, £8.99
A Little History of Literature, which begins with Beowulf and ends with bestsellers, is primarily a guide for teenagers, and John Sutherland brings to the vast and unruly subject some order, clarity and commonsense. Like Dr Johnson, he enjoys the chance to “concur with the common reader”, and the common reader – addressed as though he or she were a bright-eyed Candide rather than a dead-eyed nihilist – will doubtless concur with Sutherland’s views on the joys of genre fiction, the value of what Orwell called “good-bad books”, the analogy between Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads and the lyrical ballads of Bob Dylan, and the virtue of good film adaptations, such as the 1992 version of The Last of the Mohicans, which “complicates our response to the original novel”.
There is no hand-wringing about the death of the book; Sutherland remains optimistic –“and with good reason” – about the place of ebooks and the future of reading. Nor does he bewail the popularity of the fan-fiction websites that gave us Fifty Shades of Grey, and where Harry Potter and Jane Austen obsessives share their own spin-off tales. These forums for the common writer revive a form of storytelling that, like the Odyssey, “is not commissioned, nor is it paid for, nor is it ‘reviewed’, nor is it bought. It is not, as the term is usually applied, ‘published’.”
“Fanfic” is part of an evolving online republic in which writing is not a commodity but a “conversation”, and Sutherland himself adopts an easy conversational gait as he leads the nation’s youngsters, Pied Piper-like, away from their iPhones and into a written world from which he hopes they will never return. There are some good jokes along the way: Oepidus kills Laius at the crossroads in a fit of “road-rage”, the muse is a “mean employer” who provides “inspiration but no cash”, and religion in the age of Shakespeare was “literally a burning topic”.
There are two million volumes of so-called literature in the vaults of the British Library and Sutherland’s problem is the same as the one he ascribes to Laurence Sterne with Tristram Shandy: how to pack everything necessary for the journey that the book is about to take, when you have ten times more clothes than suitcases. Some essentials have to be left behind. First in go myth, epic and tragedy; comedy is excluded but then Sutherland finds humour in everything. Instead of sensation novels, such as Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White, there are enjoyable discussions of “proto novels” – like Cervantes’s Don Quixote – where we “feel a novel trying to get out”, and of “novels about novels” – such as Tristram Shandy –which make it hard for the reader to get in.
Wisely perhaps, Sutherland does not allow sex on this particular trip, which might explain the absence of D H Lawrence. Nor does he bring along Freud’s “discovery” of the unconscious; but then, as Freud himself conceded, the writers had got there first.
Singled out for special attention are Johnson, Jane Austen, Dickens and Hardy rather than Trollope, George Eliot, Henry James or James Joyce. Space is given to Romanticism (but not the Gothic), modernism (but not postmodernism), to literature of the absurd, confessional and war poetry, as well as magical realism. Digressions into copyright law, the history of the book, prize culture and colonialism (Sutherland suggests that only “great” nations produce “great” literature) give the book an extra dimension.
Critically speaking, Sutherland is old-fashioned but schools of criticism are not mentioned here; apart from Dr Johnson, the nation’s schoolmaster, the most significant critic referred to is “our English teacher in the classroom”. Despite his respect for the words-on-the-page approach, Sutherland goes for potted biographies and plot summaries rather than close readings. “Great literature never makes things simpler” he reminds us, and if I have a gripe with his laudably democratic approach it is that he makes reading seem too simple.
He quotes Sartre’s contention that novels “are machines that secrete spurious meaning into the world”, and it would be good to see more of these meanings unlocked and to watch Sutherland demonstrate the difference between a meaning and a spurious meaning, or a line of good poetry and a line of “crud”. At the same time as he warns us that literature “gives no easy answers to difficult questions”, he makes reading seem as easy as a soak in the bath.
That reading can be a high-risk activity becomes apparent in How to Read a Novelist, conversations between the former Granta editor John Freeman and 55 (mostly American) writers, from Toni Morrison to Jonathan Franzen. For Freeman, reading is “a challenge but there is pleasure in the challenge”, while “the best writing is always difficult to do”. In his introduction, “U and Me: the Hard Lessons of Idolising John Updike”, he describes how his own reading lesson began with Updike’s Rabbit, Run. Before long, Updike had become less a pleasure than a mania. Freeman “traced” his own life over Updike’s, leaving New York, as Updike had done, to live with his girlfriend in a clapboard house in New England, where he found his “relationship immolation” repeating those of Updike’s characters. He worried that the shelves loaded with Updike editions might collapse and smother him in his sleep; he then sold the collection to pay for a wedding ring. The marriage failed and on the day his divorce was finalised Freeman found himself interviewing the great man himself and confiding in him about the break-up.
Why not? Updike had, after all, been a part of the relationship. Freeman’s assumption of intimacy apparently made Updike unhappy: “John”, his publicist explained, was “old school”. There is, Freeman learned, a wrong way to read: literature does not provide “vicariously learned solutions” to our own personal problems.
Sound familiar, common reader? Nicholson Baker covered similar ground in “U & I”, his own account of the neurosis induced by Updike idolatry. Freeman doesn’t mention Baker’s essay but the homage is there in the title of his chapter. Is this a version of fanfic – or have I misread it?
Frances Wilson’s books include “The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth” (Faber, £10.99)