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How to Read Novels Like a Professor: A Jaunty Exploration of the World's Favorite Literary Form

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Overview

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 ...

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How to Read Novels Like a Professor

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Overview

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.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Covering a range of novelists from the classic to the slightly idiosyncratic, Foster (How to Read Literature Like a Professor) expounds on the various elements of novel construction and offers advice on how to analyze them. Foster maintains a conversational tone throughout, offering pithy interjections among his literary explication (on the possibility of having a reliable narrator in Huck Finn: "Now seriously, where's the fun in that?"). Each chapter of the book breaks down a different part of the novel, from the significance of Faulkner's repeated use of the word "self-abnegation" to the intermingling of philosophy and fiction, particularly in the work of John Fowles, one of Foster's favorite writers. Foster's enthusiasm for his subject is palpable, but his audience will probably be limited to students, given the combination of examples like Joyce, Faulkner and Woolf (English course staples) and the tone of Foster's explanations-often simplistic to a degree that would seem condescending to more experienced readers, as when he emphasizes that "the narrative voice in a novel is a device invented by the writer" and then explains the idea for a full paragraph. (July)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780061340406
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 7/1/2008
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 60,171
  • Product dimensions: 5.30 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Thomas C. Foster is a professor of English at the University of Michigan-Flint, where he teaches contemporary fiction, drama, and poetry as well as creative writing and composition. He is the author of Twenty-five Books That Shaped America and several books on twentieth-century British and Irish fiction and poetry. He lives in East Lansing, Michigan.

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Read an Excerpt

How to Read Novels Like a Professor
A Jaunty Exploration of the World’s Favorite Literary Form

Introduction

Once Upon a Time:

A Short, Chaotic, and Entirely Idiosyncratic

History of the Novel

Iris Murdoch only wrote one novel in her lifetime. But she wrote it twenty-six times. Anthony Burgess never wrote the same book twice. And he wrote about a thousand. Are those characterizations accurate? Fair? Of course not. You will hear from time to time that criticism of Murdoch, and in fairness, they are pretty similar. The Green Knight (1993), her last novel before the Alzheimer's-damaged Jackson's Dilemma, isn't all that far from Under the Net (1954). Same class, same sorts of problems, same ethical preoccupations. Strong characterization and strong plotting. All this was deemed a positive virtue during her lifetime: her fans could count on a new yet familiar novel every two to three years. Those novels would always be solid and, once in a while, as with the Booker Prize winning The Sea, the Sea (1978), they would knock your socks off.

And Burgess? He has his consistencies, as well. But nothing in the early novels can prepare the reader for A Clockwork Orange (1962), which is wildly unlike the Enderby novels of the 1970s, which are formally quite distant from the experimentalism of Napoleon Symphony (1974) or the historical artfulness and Elizabethan language of his novels on Shakespeare, Nothing Like the Sun (1964), and Christopher Marlowe, A Dead Man in Deptford (1993), or the Maugham-like performance of what many call his masterpiece, Earthly Powers (1980), to say nothing of his novels in verse. Where readers ofMurdoch can begin a new novel with a quiet confidence, opening a Burgess book is an exercise in anxiety: what the devil is he up to this time?

Does it matter, this difference in uniformity? Not really. After all, each novel would have both its return audience and its newcomers, so each book had to teach its readers how to deal with it, as if for the first time, which for some it was.

It always is. Every novel is brand-new. It's never been written before in the history of the world. At the same time, it's merely the latest in a long line of narratives—not just novels, but narratives generally—since humans began telling stories to themselves and each other. This is the basic dialectic of literary history. The impulse to originality clashes with the received tradition of things already written. Miraculously, neither ever seems to overwhelm the other, and novels keep appearing, as do audiences to read them. Even so, some novels are more traditional, some more experimental, some impossible to classify.

Let's go back to a time when the novel really was new. Once upon a time, there weren't any novels. There were other things that were narrative and lengthy—epics, religious or historical narratives of the tribe, prose or verse romances, nonfictional narratives like travelogues. You know, The Iliad and The Odyssey, The Epic of Gilgamesh, the Táin Bó Cuailgne in Ireland, the romances of Chrétien de Troye and Marie de France. Plenty of candidates out there. Just not novels. Then some things began emerging, sporadically. It may be that the Catalan writer Joanot Martorell's Tirant lo Blanc, first published in Valencia in 1490, is the first European novel we can recognize as such. Note the date. Columbus hadn't sailed the sea to discover modernity yet, but he was about to. The rise of the novel coincides with the rise of the modern world—exploration, discovery, invention, development, oppression, industrialization, exploitation, conquest, and violence—and that's no coincidence. It took more than movable type to make the novel possible; it took a new age. But I digress.

Rightly or wrongly, there are two novels we generally think of as the "first"—and they're seventy years apart. In 1678 someone, perhaps Madame de La Fayette, published a little novel of profound significance. Its popularity was such that people lined up at the publishers waiting, sometimes for months, for their copies. Take that, Harry Potter. The book is called La Princesse de Clèves, and its chief claim to fame is not as a first novel but as the first roman d'analyse, a novel of analysis, a book that investigates emotions and mental states, pushing well beyond the mere conveying of plot. Some readers three hundred and some years later may find the tale a little clunky for their tastes, although the clunkiness largely resides in the surface details, in how persons in the novel speak and address one another and how the writer handles character presentation. The mores of the novel are not ours, but they are genuine in themselves, as are the consequences that grow out of the dictates of conscience. For its time (published within a decade of the Sturm und Drang that is Paradise Lost), the narrative is an extremely subtle performance, and writers as various as Jane Austen, Henry James, Gustave Flaubert, and Anita Brookner couldn't do what they do without it. Madame de La Fayette is one of the giants of the novel, but she's just a kid.

At the yonder end of the century, 1605 to be exact, a book came out that really set the world on its ear. Here's what I heard the amazing Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes say at a conference once: "All of Latin American literature grows out of Don Quixote." Not fiction or novels. Literature. All of it. The Hispanic world gets to claim Miguel de Cervantes and his masterpiece, of course, but it has to share with the rest of us. The book is simply too big for any one group to own. It's goofy and serious, hilarious and sad, satiric and original. And it's first. Okay, okay, there are lots of "first" novels. But this is a big first. Cervantes shows everyone else what might be done. He paro dies earlier narrative forms as his Quixote descends into confusion between the world of the too many romances he has read and the dull world life has saddled him with. Cervantes uses an out of touch figure locked in some never-never past to make commentary on the author's here and now. His hero is comic, certainly, but there's a forlorn quality there, too, as we watch someone too far gone in fantasy to notice, whose gestures, as in his championing of Dulcinea and his tilting at windmills, are both noble and pathetic, uplifting and pointless.

How to Read Novels Like a Professor
A Jaunty Exploration of the World’s Favorite Literary Form
. Copyright © by Thomas Foster. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 21 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 21 Customer Reviews
  • Posted March 5, 2011

    Glad I bought it.

    I was debating between this one and his one on literature because I also enjoy the classics. However, I figured I read modern stuff more frequently and thought it might be fun to read it from a more analytical point of view. It turns out that this novel discusses classics a lot, and the difference between the two books appears that this one discusses more of form (point of view, plot development, style, etc.) and I believe the other one talks about more abstract concepts like symbolism and meaning. There's some stuff here on character motivation and meaning, but not so much that it couldn't be explored further. I'll buy the other one soon, looking at the sample it does seem that they don't overlap too much.

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 22, 2008

    Don't let the title fool you! It's a fun book to read.

    I am thoroughly enjoying this book. I have not read most of the books he refers to but I am still gleaming a great deal from it. This would also be great for aspiring writers. The author is funny, and unlike a lot of lit professors, he is not a lit-snob. He does not speak down to the reader and helps the reader to see things a little differently. I can not wait until I am finished so that I can reread A Tree Grows in Brooklyn- not one of my favorites, but maybe it will inspire a different view.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 6, 2008

    Informative and funny.

    I'm really enjoying reading this book. He explores the different types of narrators and I can't wait to explore this enjoyable aspect. He says the first page tells you whats-what, I never knew! I want to read some of the novels wth different narrators that he enjoys.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 7, 2014

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    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 30, 2014

    There are piles and piles of books about being a writer. It's re

    There are piles and piles of books about being a writer. It's refreshing to find one about being a reader.
    Thomas C. Foster, a literature professor, employs a fun, breezy style to teach people how to get the
    most out of their reading. Chapter by chapter he takes readers through the major aspects that
    comprise "the novel"--quite a trick considering what a slippery creature it has shown itself since its
    debut back in the 1700s.

    Here's a quick sample of some chapter headings. They give a good sense of the Foster's friendly,
    approachable style.

    --Pick Up Lines and Open(ing) Seductions or Why Novels Have First Pages.
    --Never Trust a Narrator with a Speaking Part.
    --When Very Bad People Happen to Good Novels
    --Everywhere is Just One Place
    --Who Broke My Novel?
    --Untidy Endings

    Within each chapter, Forster uses pointed examples from both classic and contemporary fiction. I'm
    glad I have a habit of reading with a pen in hand, because I ended up with quite a reading list by the
    time I finished this book. The basic "lesson" of each chapter is summed up by a general (and pretty
    tongue-in-cheek) rule. Below is a sample of Foster's useful little nuggets. 

    --The Law of Getting Started: The opening is the first lesson in how to read a book. 
    --The Law of Narrative Unreliability: Stop believing the narrator when you see the word "I."
    --The Law of People and Things: Characters are revealed not only by their actions and their words, but also by the items that surround them.
    --The Law of Crowded Desks: When a novelist sits down to begin a novel, there are a thousand other writers in the room. Minimum.

    If you are a writer, this book is doubly useful. It's chapters provide a neat checklist of thing to look for in
    your own work. Foster manages to provide lots of good direction without hampering individual style. His
     whole philosophy is based on the flexibility of the novel as a literary form. One that can accommodate
    sensibilities as wide ranging as stalwart Victorian Charles Dickens, noir writer Raymond Chandler,
    and contemporary novelists like Barbara Kingsolver.

    Foster emphasizes that, in all literature, there is only ONE story. And yet it's also true that we can't read
    the same book twice. We've changed and therefore so has the book. It's his treatment of books as living,
    evolving entities that makes it likely his own HOW TO READ NOVELS LIKE A PROFESSOR will stand
    up to multiple readings.The discussions and theories he presents seemed designed to support a
    literary taste that grows and changes.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 7, 2012

    Looking forward to reading this!

    I just discovered this book. And will purchase it. I did read the first one, which is really insightful if one wants to read for further meaning and depth. I have had professor Foster for a couple of classes at University of Michigan at Flint. I can say, first hand, this man knows his stuff. The funny thing, his first book was already published and sitting on the shelf at B&N when I had him as a professor, and I never knew he wrote it until I brought it up during a class discussion. He then told us about the book. I bought a copy and had him sign it. He's a very fine man and terrific professor. Looking forward to reading this. I'm sure it's going to be quite insightful. Glad he's helping people to hsve a higher level of awareness while reading.

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  • Posted October 19, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Wonderful reading.

    Wonderful reading.

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