walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

Thomas C. Foster, _How to Read Novels Like a Professor_, not a review

This is technically Not a Review, because I only read the first half. I bought it in paperback, probably around 2008, probably for two reasons. (1) I wanted to review the basics of reading novels critically, with a view to having that in my repertoire during book group. (2) It has a positive sentence by Nicholas Basbanes on the back. In retrospect, that sentence was maybe NOT a good thing to base a purchase on. “Dante had his Virgil; for everyone else, there is Thomas Foster.”


I read the first half of _How ..._ as part of my Read or Release project. I’ve concluded that I really do hate paper as a medium for reading books. I’m sending all the paper books I have read and enjoyed to my sister or other interested parties; the rest are part of Read or Release: either give them up pre-emptively, without reading, or really, for real, like right now, one at a time, Read the Damn Things. I’m keeping some things around for reference (I know, seems stupid in the age of Google, but for some things it still makes sense).

I am live-blogging the reading of (some/many of) these books, which in this case means I have been Complaining. Foster’s writing style is highly engaging, which is why I made it 137 pages into an increasingly irritating book. Foster’s selections are not entirely white male writers, but his exceptions are people like Agatha Christie and Jane Austen (Charlotte Bronte, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein -- and the space devoted to the White Males is much more substantial than that devoted to the Women. It's even worse when it comes to writers of color). Worse, he refers to Hawk, Spenser’s friend who is black, as an “emblem”, right up there with Sherlock’s pipe, Nero Wolfe’s orchids, etc. I cannot bring myself to quote what he has to say about Molly Bloom.

Foster’s treatment of the basics of reading novels critically is okay. It’s not great -- he’s prone to ridiculous overgeneralizations and assertions which are not only on the face of them untrue, entire current hot subgenres are being built upon subverting them, so you would sort of think a professor in this area might be interested, you know, kinda watching the Art in Action, type of thing (<-- sarcasm. I know professors aren’t, by definition, interested in new developments. Sometimes people who are professors are interested, but professors are there to retain access to and understanding of what we used to know, not what we are currently doing now.). You would be much better reading E.M. Forster’s _Aspects of the Novel_, at least, I remember liking that treatment a lot better and this Foster quotes Forster on characterization, and this Foster kinda sucks when describing characterization, altho he’s worse on word choice. [edited because I had E.M. Foster when it should have been and now is E.M. Forster]

I really should have stopped over the implicit sexism, but like a fool I continued until I hit a few paragraphs about Hemingway’s _The Son Also Rises_, that made me go, wow, you _are_ going to point out how antisemitic that is, right? Nope. In fact, Foster writes: “Robert Cohn, the friend Jake detests, sins against the tribe in various ways. He’s privileged (a Princeton graduate), successful among men still struggling to establish themselves, Jewish among Gentiles, left out of the experience of warfare, excessively earnest, insufficiently guarded.” In the next paragraph, “The 1920s … could have been called the deracinated age.”

Okay, so it’s bad to say anti-heroes don’t predate the twentieth century; that erases Moll Flanders. That’s bad. Real bad. Sexist, ignoring historical context, just not knowing the material -- I don’t care what the explanation is, but Moll Flanders removal from an anti-hero list is Wrong. But if you then describe a wildly antisemitic characterization (and it sounds like the novel almost revolves around the assimilated Jew representing all that is most hateful about bourgie society) as indicating a deracinated age? I don’t know what you’re up to, but I won’t participate.

Don’t waste your time. This one goes into the recycle bin. Pity -- Foster's writing style really pulls the reader along.
Tags: non-fiction, not-a-book-review

  • Post a new comment


    default userpic

    Your reply will be screened

    Your IP address will be recorded 

    When you submit the form an invisible reCAPTCHA check will be performed.
    You must follow the Privacy Policy and Google Terms of use.