How to Read a Novel by Caroline Gordon

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The astute novelist and critic, Caroline Gordon (1895—1981), first published this book in 1953. It is directed toward the serious reader of fiction; but it can also help those who have a serious desire to write fiction.  

My use of the word “serious” (in both instances) corresponds to Gordon’s distinction between novels which offer readers enjoyment rather than amusement. Enjoyment, in the sense that she means, goes deep; it can have an illuminating effect on the mind or it can reach into untapped regions of the soul. Amusement, on the other hand, is superficial, like a ride on a rollercoaster. It’s fun but not especially meaningful. Gordon’s book teaches readers how to attain the deeper pleasures of reading.

The human desire to compose or read fiction seems to be innate. In history it goes back at least as far as Homer, and it articulates various themes via the words and deeds and experiences of imaginary characters. These stories are not true, not in the way a work of history or a journalistic article is true (ideally). And yet a work of fiction expresses, by the power of the written word and the virtually omnipotent human imagination, a particular view about human existence that can be enlightening and compelling. Naturally some fictional works pull this off better or more truthfully than others.

Gordon describes the component parts of a novel: mainly, Complication and Resolution. She quotes Aristotle who says: “By Complication, I mean all from the beginning of the story to the point just before the change in the hero’s fortunes. By Resolution [I mean] the beginning of the change to the end.” Gordon continues: 

‘The ideal effect, of course, is that in which the Resolution appears to grow out of the Complication as inevitably, as naturally, as a plant grows from a seed.’

This means that inevitability should be latent in the first two or three pages of a novel. But there is a big difference between inevitability and predictability.

I don’t like everything in Gordon’s book. Sometimes her manner is excessively sophisticated, and the result is an over-complication of the reading experience. Instinct is a crucial factor, I would say. The good or serious reader simply knows what works and what doesn’t—which is not to say that a perusal of Gordon’s book is a waste of time. Overall, her study of this subject is invaluable.      

To illustrate her numerous points and insights, Gordon quotes from many literary sources: Sophocles, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Flaubert and Henry James, to name just a few (she pays especially meticulous attention to James’ work). The more ambitious student of How to Read a Novel could use it as a guide and primer to these many authors and their works, and attain thereby a truly profound understanding of literature. It’s a project that might take years to complete but it can have an enriching effect overall and stay with one for a lifetime.