The Inner Sanctum: John Freeman’s “How to Read a Novelist”

By Cornel BoncaNovember 8, 2013

The Inner Sanctum: John Freeman’s “How to Read a Novelist”

How to Read a Novelist by John Freeman

IF YOU'RE AN AVID FOLLOWER of contemporary fiction — if you bookmark The Millions,  subscribe to Bookforum, grind your teeth over the latest flap involving Jonathan Franzen, and, first thing, pull out the Book Review when you get the Sunday New York Times — then John Freeman’s How To Read A Novelist is the perfect, and perfectly modest, book. It’s a bathroom book for the literary reader, and I mean that in the nicest possible way. Composed of 55 short author profiles that Freeman wrote between 2004 and 2013 for dozens of newspapers and magazines in the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, it’s a terrific compendium of insights into what contemporary writers are thinking and how they present themselves. The subjects range from Nobel Laureates (Toni Morrison, Orhan Pamuk, Doris Lessing, Nadine Gordimer, Imre Kertész, among others), writers who deserve to be Laureates (Philip Roth, Don DeLillo), top-tier novelists from all over the world (Edmundo Paz Soldán, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Salman Rushdie), a raft of younger American hotshots (Franzen, David Foster Wallace, Jennifer Egan, Dave Eggers, William T. Vollmann, Jeffrey Eugenides, Mark Z. Danielewski), and other big names like Margaret Atwood, E.L. Doctorow, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Haruki Murakami. The profiles are usually five to seven book pages and readable in 10 minutes or so: roughly what you’d get in a front-page spread in the “arts and culture” section of a newspaper. They’re quick glimpses into an author’s life and work, and usually based on two- or three-hour interviews with the authors, held occasionally in their homes or in restaurants or, more often than not, in their publicist’s offices or in hotel rooms while they’re touring in support of their latest books.

Profiles like these are hard to do: writers are often tired from traveling, and from saying the same things over and over to those who interview them, but Freeman keeps his pieces remarkably fresh, and pitches them to a general audience without reducing literary ideas to mush. Keeping himself largely out of his pieces, he puts himself in service to writers and their books. He stands up for literature as an institution, and excels at characterizing a writer’s work quickly, cogently, pithily; of Franzen, for instance, he writes that “in the mid-nineties, when he called out American novelists in Harper’s for abandoning social engagement he was the lugubrious auslander. The buzzkiller. The nerd king: right in concept but perhaps too knowing of his rightness.” QED, one wants to say. Freeman comes off as a sort of universal BFF of the contemporary writer: he greases the wheels of publicity without compromising the dignity of the writer, spreads the word with admirable enthusiasm, self-effacement, and literary judgment. He’s exactly the kind of intermediary that contemporary writers need to get the news out to potential readers. There ought to be a hundred more like him.

Freeman seems to have no agenda, no “thesis” about contemporary writing, to advance in collecting these pieces, beyond the one, perhaps, that his publisher has attached to the marketing of the book: that “the novel is alive and well, thank you very much.” “I wanted the pieces I wrote about novelists,” Freeman writes in the introduction, “to describe an encounter, to show to the reader what the writer revealed to me, at their own choosing, over an hour or two or three, sometimes more, of talk.” And he certainly does that: when he travels to Vermont to visit John Irving, for instance, we watch Freeman walk into the author’s “huge mountaintop home in Dorset”:

To get to the inner sanctum […] a visitor must walk past a long row of shelves of the author’s books, seemingly printed in as many languages as there are countries. At the end of the hall is the heart of the home, a long, cozy room that stretches toward the horizon like the prow of a ship. And at its center sits Irving, the sixty-three-year-old author best known for his much-loved 1978 novel, The World According to Garp, as well as his near fanatical passion for wrestling.

[…] “You know when it’s really great up here?” he says as I enter the room he calls an office, swiveling in his chair toward the panorama. “The winter. It’s just all white treetops.” Our meeting is in late June, though, so the hills are shrouded in haze. And at nine o’clock in the morning, Irving is dressed for hot weather—shorts and an athletic T-shirt. No AC for him. There is a locker room pulse to the air about him, as if he had just completed the literary equivalent of a hundred one-armed push-ups.

Irving’s initial friendliness turns out to be a cover for his famous prickliness, though: the author, Freeman tells us, “has had such an adversarial relationship with journalists. A precondition of this interview was that I had to have read Until I Find You in its entirety. If it became clear I had not, I was warned, Irving would terminate the discussion.” Luckily, Freeman had read all 848 pages of Irving’s new novel, and manages to get through the interview, and the profile, without any trouble — or any more references to himself. Irving, though, comes through loud and clear.

Freeman’s encounters with other writers are less dramatically charged but unfailingly interesting. Tidbits abound: Joyce Carol Oates, Freeman learns, has published over 1000 short stories. William T. Vollmann claims to have smoked crack cocaine over 150 times (research, don’t you know). Edmund White once rescued Michel Foucault from a San Francisco bath house, where he was having a bad acid trip. Salman Rushdie’s wife, the model Padma Lakshmi, once compared her collection of shoes to his books, saying, “When he says, ‘Why do you need more shoes?’ I say, ‘Why do you need more books? My shoes are the same as your books; they are part of who you are.’” (Mercifully, they are now divorced.) Doris Lessing gets up every morning at five a.m. to feed hundreds of birds on the heath near her home before she sets down to write. Don DeLillo is so “small,” “slight,” and unassuming that the day Freeman followed him around, the author had trouble getting past the security guard of his own publisher’s offices. John Updike claims to dislike interviews, but when a question interests him, he launches into “minutes-long prose reveries, punctuated by the movement of his eyes, the waggle of his prominent eyebrows, and gestures of his hands, which are pink and somewhat gnarled, as if he has spent a lifetime vulcanizing words, rather than twisting them into shape on the page. When he strikes upon a particularly felicitous turn of phrase, his blue eyes flash with an immodest mischief.” And Aleksandar Hemon, the Sarajevo-born novelist of The Lazarus Project, now living in Chicago, possesses a “flamboyant honesty”: “When he is tired he naps, whether people are talking to him or not, and when he is hungry, he will eat whatever is there in the house, even if it means spreading Nutella on a slice of mille-feuille, which I have seen him do. He is a hugger, a bum slapper, and if he doesn’t like you, a glarer.”

The non-American novelists, like Hemon, are frequently burdened by histories of political repression, sometimes by the outright banning of their works, and sometimes by much worse (like imprisonment or torture), whose drama Freeman can’t help but make part of his profiles. Their stories suggest a political thrust and importance to world fiction that American novelists find difficult to match. Yet the clichéd observation about American fiction being “non-political” isn’t borne out by Freeman’s profiles, even if he doesn’t particularly play up the theme. Charles Frazier dedicates years of his writing life to the history of the decimated Cherokee nation; Dave Eggers forges a career that links his literary work to his dedication to increasing literacy among the disenfranchised.  American authors tend to be micro-political, dedicated to causes they can put their hands on: pragmatists to the end. But even that defense is insufficient. Philip Roth and Don DeLillo may talk about their work almost exclusively in terms of craft, but Roth’s Operation Shylock, I Married A Communist, or even Exit Ghost, are awash in politics both national and international, while DeLillo’s Underworld or Cosmopolis are profound studies of late 20th century empire. The problem isn’t with American books, but with an American audience so saturated by easier forms of media and entertainment that it looks at the novel as an old, gray-haired gentleman sitting in a room full of circus performers: out of it, irrelevant, maybe impotent. It’s an untrue characterization, of course — Infinite Jest, all by itself, gives it the lie, as does Pynchon’s new Bleeding Edge — but it’s the perception, and in America, an image culture which tends to be embarrassed by serious political thinking, perception is all. 

Reading How to Read A Novelist made me restless because it made me want to read more books: I really need to get around to Danielewski’s House of Leaves, Marilynne Robinson’s Home, Hemon’s The Lazarus Project, Kertesz’s Liquidation, Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games. But more than anything, it offered up numerous thought-nuggets that get close to the heart of the novelistic enterprise. Here’s Ian McEwan, talking about the moment the idea for Atonement came to him:

It was the Mediterranean spring, and I had the day to myself … and I had one of those little epiphanies of  “I’m me,” and at the same time thinking, well, everyone must feel this. Everyone must think, “I’m me.” It’s a terrifying idea … yet that sense that other people exist is the basis of our morality. You cannot be cruel to someone, I think, if you are fully aware of what it’s like to be them. In other words, you could see cruelty as a failure of imagination, as a failure of empathy. And to come back to the novel as a form, I think, that’s where it is supreme in giving us that sense of other minds.

That idea of the novel as giving us that “sense of other minds” rhymes nicely with the conclusion of Freeman’s interview with David Foster Wallace:

If fiction has any value, it’s that it lets us in. You and I can be pleasant to each other, but I will never know what you really think, and you will never know what I am thinking. I know nothing about what it’s like to be you. As far as I can tell, whether it is avant-garde or realistic, the basic engine of narrative art is how it punctures those membranes a little.

How to Read A Novelist’s gallery of portraits is valuable in many ways, but its strongest quality it that is serves as an invitation to a whole slew of writers who are offering to let you in. 


Cornel Bonca is Professor of English at California State University, Fullerton.

LARB Contributor

Cornel Bonca is a professor of English at California State University, Fullerton. He is the author of Paul Simon: An American Tune, and a longtime contributor to LARB.


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