October 04, 2013

Brief encounters with flesh-and-blood writers

By John Freeman
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By its very nature, most literary reportage is ephemeral. A review or author interview tied to the publication of a new book serves its intended purpose—helping to bring the book to the public’s attention and spur some sales—but few of these pieces have lasting value. So, gathering a collection of writer profiles that first ran in newspapers a decade or more ago may seem, on the face of things, a foolhardy endeavor.

But John Freeman’s How to Read a Novelist, which gathers 55 short pieces this notable critic wrote on assignment for papers around the world, is an exception. It is worth our attention for two reasons. First, Freeman has included mostly writers whose work has a lasting or at least universal appeal. There are a fair share of Nobel Laureates among them, including Nadine Gordimer, Mo Yan, Doris Lessing, Günter Grass, Imre Kertész and Toni Morrison, as well as many winners of the National Book Award, NBCC Award, Pulitzer, Booker and other major awards. Alongside such giants as Philip Roth, Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie, Joyce Carol Oates and David Foster Wallace, are less mainstream writers such as Kenya’s Ng?g? wa Thiong’o, Libyan expatriate Hisham Matar, and the Bosnian American Aleksandar Hemon.

The second strength of the book is what Freeman himself brings to these encounters. A perceptive critic, he remains transparent in most of these profiles, and yet his careful reading of the writers’ work informs and shapes the pieces. By his own admission, he focuses less on literary craft and tries instead to identify the essence of each subject’s art by what they reveal in conversation. Sometimes their concerns are political, sometimes personal and sometimes, as with Atwood or Dave Eggers, they are focused on broader issues of keeping literature alive or connecting with readers.

Freeman’s infectious enthusiasm for literature keeps us interested. “I have always felt there is something electrifying about meeting novelists,” he writes. “It has to do with grasping that the creator of a fictional world, a universe that lives inside you as a reader while also feeling strangely disembodied, is not as interior as that world but alive: flesh and blood. In this fashion, I wanted the pieces I wrote about novelists to describe an encounter, to show to the reader what the writer revealed to me.”

Freeman largely succeeds in this mission; these brief encounters illuminate familiar work and inspire one to read the less familiar. Some pieces are more successful than others, of course—that is the nature of the beast in a collection this broad-based. Predictably, some writers are less forthcoming than a reader might wish. Yet even less compelling profiles, written with breezy insight, warrant a read and make How to Read a Novelist a companionable literary compendium.

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