+ How to Read a Novel: What Page One Can Tell You

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Thomas C Foster is the author of the rich and wonderful “How to Read Novels Like a Professor: A Jaunty Exploration of the World’s Favorite Literary Form.”  The book is concerned with the “grammar” of the novel; the specific, formal elements of this most popular of literary forms.

He explores how authors’ choices (about structure, point of view, narrative voice and other aspects of a novel) create meaning using a special literary language.  Foster gives us the keys to this language.

Chapter One starts off roundly, offering the 18 (count them) things you can learn on the first page of a novel.

Foster suggests that the first page is a promissory note between the author and a prospective reader, saying, “Hey, I’ve got something good here — trust me.”  But more: the first page of a novel teaches us how to read it.


1.    Style    Are sentences short or long, simple or complex, rushed or leisurely?  How many modifiers?  Hemingway, says Foster, was “badly frightened in infancy by words ending in ‘ly.’ ”  Open any American detective novel, he says, and you’ll see that the author has probably read Hemingway. 

2.    Tone    Every book has one, Foster tells us: elegiac, matter-of-fact, ironic.  Jane Austen’s masterpiece opening sentence in “Pride and Prejudice” distances the speaker from the source of that “universal truth” she mentions and gives her permission to trot out the rest of her ironic statement about men with fortunes being in need of wives.

3.    Mood    Similar to tone but not the same, says Foster.  Tone is about how the voice sounds, but “mood” is how the voice feels about the story it’s telling.  “The Great Gatsby” narrator, Nick Carraway, speaks in a reasonable sounding tone, but his mood is one of regret, guilt and even anger. What is it, we wonder, that he’s not quite saying here?

4.    Diction    What kind of words does the novel use?  Common or rare, friendly or challenging?  Are sentences whole or fractured, and if they’re fractured, is it accidental or on purpose?  Foster mentions Anthony Burgess’s “A Clockwork Orange:” his character Alex uses a combination of Elizabethan elaboration, colorful curses and a kind of Slavic-based teen slang called Nadsat.

5.    Point of View    Not necessarily “who” in the story is telling the tale (see “narrative presence” below), but “who” relative to the story and its characters.  Is it a ‘he/she’ story or an ‘I’ story?  If ‘he/she,’ we can assume this is a more distant third-person narration.  If ‘I’ is the narrator, we can expect to meet a major or minor character, and our suspicions are aroused.  If the narration employs ‘you,’ says Foster, hang on to your hats: you’re likely in for some strange experiences.  Even if the author gets “tricky” with the third-person or the ‘I’ narrator, we usually get hints in the first paragraphs.

6.    Narrative Presence    Is it a disembodied voice or a person who is inside or outside the story?  One of the servants?  A victim?  A perpetrator?  Authors usually give us hints right away.  With first-person narrators, the “presence” is usually quite clear.  Third-person narrators can speak to us as genial companions (Austen), passionate participants (Dickens), or impersonal, detached and cool observers (Hemingway or Brookner).  In the 21st century, Foster reminds us, authors are less likely than their Victorian counterparts to mix it up emotionally.

7.    Narrative Attitude    How does the narrator feel about the characters and the action: amused (Austen), earnest (Dickens), or detached and impersonal as the narrator of Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary.”  Flaubert, says Foster,in reacting to the overheated involvement of previous romantic era writers, created the next narrative cliche.

8.    Time Frame    Is all this contemporary or did it happen a long time ago?  How can we tell?  Does it cover a lot of time, or a little?  Check Gacia Marquez’s opening in “One Hundred Years of Solitude:” “Many years later…”   Foster feels any writer serious about the craft should be jealous of those three simple words.

9.    Time Management    Will it go fast or slow?  Is it being told in or near the “now” of the story, or long after?  Foster tell us that Nicholson Baker’s “The Mezzanine” takes place in the time it takes the narrator to ride an escalator from the first floor to the next landing — a feat that requires the elongation of time to the extreme.

10.   Place    Setting, but also more than setting, suggests Foster: a sense of things, a mode of thought, a way of seeing.  The second paragraph of TC Boyle’s “Water Music” tells us that the Niger River locale is both the setting and the story.

11.   Motif    According to Foster, motif is simply “stuff that happens again and again.”  It can be action, language pattern, image — anything that happens repeatedly.  Escapes in “One Hundred Years of Solitude.”   Flowers in “Mrs. Dalloway.”  Cultural blunders leading to disasters in “Water Music.” Vonnegut’s ‘And so it goes,’ from “Slaughterhouse Five.”

12.   Theme    (Stop groaning, says Foster.  There won’t be a test.)  Theme is about “aboutness.”  Where the story is what happens, “theme” is the idea content.  Sometimes it’s simple: most mysteries carry the message that crime will be found out.  In “Mrs. Dalloway,” it is the presence of the past — and we get it right there on the first page.  It might be more subtle: a secondary theme in Agatha Christie’s novels is the decline of the aristocracy — all those inept, bumbling inhabitants of magnificent manor houses.

13.   Irony    Or not!  Some novels are in dead earnest — the entire 19th century, for example.  (Except Twain.  And Flaubert.)  But other novels are ironic on any number of levels: verbal, dramatic, comic, situational; and the irony usually shows up right away.  Robert Parker’s “A Catskill Eagle,” Foster tell us, begins “It was midnight and I was just getting home from detecting.”  Spenser (the protagonist and narrator) is in deadly earnest about what he does for a living when he’s doing it, but he knows that his chosen trade is morally dubious and he wants you to know that he’s also someone who likes wine with dinner.  Throughout, he veers between hard-charging action and ironic, distanced commentary.

14.   Rhythm    Prose rhythm shows up right away (narrative rhythm takes a while to establish) says Foster.  Prose rhythm often suggests how the larger narrative’s rhythm will work.  This rhythm is related to “diction” but with this difference: while diction has to do with the words a writer uses,  “rhythm” is how they are deployed in sentences.  Actually, they’re largely inseparable, because prose rhythm depends a good deal on the words chosen while also coloring how the words sound. (Everything in narrative is related to everything else on some level.)  Does the writer blurt out information or withhold it?  State it directly or bury it in a tangle of subordinate clauses?  Check out Barbara Kingsolver’s opening in “The Poisonwood Bible;” the rhythm is calm, measured, almost leisurely, but every detail is terrifying.

15.   Pace    How fast will we go?  Henry James opens “The Portrait of a Lady” with language that lets us know this will not be a hundred yard dash, says Foster: long, abstract words, embedded phrases.  Every sentence tells us this will be leisurely, so get used to it.  Psychological insight and interior drama can’t be rushed.

16.   Expectations    Not only of the writer — of the reader as well.  Page One, says Foster, is the most interactive of them all.  The writer gets to announce his or her expectations: one expects her reader will be patient (George Eliot); another expects readers to be hip, savvy and unafraid of the unconventional   (Thomas Pynchon); yet another wants a relaxed, jaunty companion (PG Wodehouse).  Authors do announce their expectations. But Page One is also where readers get to say whether or not  we will agree to his  terms.  Do we WANT to read it?  Do we approve of his word choice?  Are we that hip?  More?  The first page, according to Foster, is the beginning of a negotiation between writer and reader.  It’s where we have — or don’t have — a meeting of the minds.

17.   Character    You won’t always find a main character on page one, but more often than not, you will.  And it will probably be THE main character.  “Protagonist” comes from the Greek meaning “first agent,” Foster reminds us, and writers from the fifth century BCE to the 21st century usually trot them out straight away.  First-person narratives give us a character immediately: Huck Finn, Mike Hammer, Humbert Humbert.  But we find Mrs. Dalloway in the first two words of her novel; Joyce begins “Ulysses” with “stately, plump Buck Mulligan,” the protagonist’s nemesis; and in Garcia Marquez’s hundred-year saga, Aureliano Buendia faces a firing squad in the first sentence.

18.   Instructions on How to Read This Novel    The 17 previous elements instruct us how the novel wants to be read.  Every novel wants to be read in a certain way. It’s our call whether we read it that way.  It’s worth noting that we won’t get all of those features in every first page, but most of them will show up.  Even a dozen will provide a goodly assemblage of information, Foster says.  We will be well prepared to turn the page and grapple with the story.

Buy this book!

Sole source: “How to Read Novels Like a Professor: A Jaunty Exploration of the World’s Favorite Literary Form,” by Thomas C Foster.   Cost: $13.95.  Published by Harper Collins Books, 2008.  ISBN 978-0-06-134040-6.  Foster’s previous book, “How to Read Literature Like a Professor,” is also available.

tutoring in Columbus OH:   Adrienne Edwards   614-579-6021   or email  aedwardstutor@columbus.rr.com


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