Goodreads: How to Read Novels Like a Professor: A Jaunty Exploration of the World’s Favorite Literary Form
Published: July 2008
Of all the literary forms, the novel is arguably the most discussed . . . and fretted over. From Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote to the works of Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and today’s masters, the novel has grown with and adapted to changing societies and technologies, mixing tradition and innovation in every age throughout history.
Thomas C. Foster—the sage and scholar who ingeniously led readers through the fascinating symbolic codes of great literature in his first book, How to Read Literature Like a Professor—now examines the grammar of the popular novel. Exploring how authors’ choices about structure—point of view, narrative voice, first page, chapter construction, character emblems, and narrative (dis)continuity—create meaning and a special literary language, How to Read Novels Like a Professor shares the keys to this language with readers who want to get more insight, more understanding, and more pleasure from their reading.
I have mixed feelings about this book because, on one hand, the information provided is not necessarily the first things I would have thought of if someone asked me, “How, in fact, do professors/scholars read novels?” based on my previous experience as a PhD student and my familiarity with the field of literary studies. On the other hand, the information is undoubtedly valuable, and there are moments of brilliance. In that sense, I’d recommend the book to someone interested in learning about literature and interpreting their reading in general, not necessarily someone who was seriously thinking about graduate school or how to get an article published in an academic journal.
I’ve seen some reviews accuse the book, essentially, of being overly simplistic and providing information that ought to have come up in any high school literature class. There are times in the book that I can see this: for example, the chapter on the different types of points of view in a novel. And certainly I have never heard someone even mention the term “point of view” or make a particular point about a novel being in third person omniscient or first person or whatever in a graduate seminar or academic article.
However, I think there’s a risk of reading this book reductively. Of course, no professor reads novels and thinks, “Ah, yes, third person limited point of view! Fascinating! I will write a whole paper about that!” But (subconsciously?) noticing the point of view and realizing how that affects the text and one’s interpretation of the text is important and something scholars do mostly without thinking much about it. If you write a paper about, for example, aging in a novel or if you are interpreting a novel through feminist critical theory, it helps to know who is telling the story and how that may affect the information presented. If it’s in first person and the narrator is ten, that’s different from if the narrator is sixty, and it’s different from if the book is in third person omniscient point of view.
I also think that the ease with which the author of this book talks about the whole sweeping history of the novel (sometimes literature in general) can make this information seem “obvious,” but clearly one of the “advantages” professors have while reading literature is that they are very widely read and do know more about the history of literature and how it changed over various time periods than the average person does. A simple example: I once was talking to a friend about medieval romances, and she gave me a lengthy response in which she assumed I was talking about…romance…like a Harlequin novel. Someone with a PhD in English literature, even if their expertise were not in medieval literature, would never make this mistake and would likely have something to day about how medieval romance influenced 19th century literature or influenced modern day fantasy, etc. When professors read, they have tons of background information in their minds that many other readers do not; a good professor may make this look easy, but it clearly took them years of intensive study to gain this knowledge.
But, yes, if someone asked me, “How do professors read novels?” my first instinct would not be to talk about all the work they are doing in the back of their minds, noticing the point of view, the style of the prose, the time period the novel was written in, what authors the author might have been influenced, etc. I would probably say that many scholars have specialties and things they are interested in studying/writing about and that many of them go into reading texts by looking in those things. If they’re a Marxist scholar, they read novels through a Marxist lens. If they generally publish on motherhood or medicine or childhood in 18th century literature, they read books looking for things related to motherhood, medicine, or childhood. The things mentioned in this book influence the interpretation, of course, but I can see why other reviewers have thought, “No, this is not how professors read books” or “But I know about points of view already.”
Finally, I thought some of the things pointed out in the book were more likely to come up in a creative writing course than a literature course—so I was NOT surprised when Foster mentioned halfway through that he does, in fact, teach creating writing. While literary studies and creative writing should have much in common, my experience is that experts in those fields look for different things. If someone asks, “Why does Poe never say what’s in the letter in ‘The Purloined Letter?’” saying, “It makes the story more dramatic; people can imagine what they think is most scandalous, rather than potentially being underwhelmed by learning what exactly the letter says,” that would probably go over better in a creative writing course than a literature course. So this book is a bit about, “How does a literary scholar read novels?” and a bit about, “How does a creative writing professor (or a creative writer) read novels?”
Personally, I found it interesting, though it does rely a lot on Foster’s favorite books (Joyce, Faulkner, Hemingway, etc.) for examples, and I’m honestly not sure how it would go over for someone who doesn’t really know much about the texts being referenced. It’s definitely worth a look if you want to know more about interpreting literature and not simply reading for entertainment.