John Freeman, by his own admission, came late to reading. His summers growing up were spent performing rebound drills at basketball camp, not with his nose in a book. His literary education began much later in a Brooklyn brownstone he rented from a magazine editor and her bibliophile husband.
One day, Freeman was caught leaning over the imposing ten-foot drop of the couple's enormous bookshelf trying to reach a copy of Flaubert's "Sentimental Education."
Freeman, caught red-handed, asked the owner if he had any book recommendations. First, he was introduced to a volume of short stories by John Cheever, followed by John Updike’s "Rabbit, Run."
But with the publication of his most recent work, "How to Read a Novelist
," you might assume the award-winning literary critic was born with a copy of Updike's fiction in tow.
The anthology offers up 55 mini-profiles that give readers a look into the lives, works, and motivations of 39 male and 16 female literary heavyweights.
Freeman makes readers feel like they are sitting at Toni Morrison or Philip Roth's breakfast table long enough for a second cup of coffee.
"My approach to this was always to build a series of bigger and bigger doorways so someone would feel comfortable and they would start talking and they would talk their way into saying something interesting," Freeman, a former president of the National Book Critics Circle — and until this year the editor of the prestigious literary journal Granta — explains.
"With novelists it's not that hard, at least the caliber of people I was interviewing were so good that they had a lot to say. I think the right questions are open ended . . . are questions that require a story to be answered. The wrong questions are the questions that put them in a defensive position . . . or the questions that were applying a critical gaze on them."
Freeman says the goal of his interviews is to describe an encounter, "to show to the reader what the writer revealed to me, at their own choosing, over an hour or two or three, sometimes more, of talk."
He has two loyalties, Freeman says — one to the reader, the second to the author. But the former trumps the later. At the end of the day, you're not there to protect the writer's feelings, Freeman says, but to try to understand what they set out to do in their work.
Among the literary icons in "How to Read a Novelist
" are global forces Gunter Grass and Nadine Gordimer, American authors Philip Roth and Toni Morrison, and a generous sprinkling of Third World authors.
"I always wanted to start [the book] with a piece that was exciting and had as many notes as possible — like the prelude — and anything that came after that would hit some of those notes, maybe not all of them. And then end with something strong," Freeman says.
For him, that initial piece was Toni Morrison. A writer, Freeman says, who sacrificed in order to write novels that serve in many ways as an investigation of culture.
"They're beautiful and imaginative and as a person talking about her own work, she's deeply authoritative. As in she knows exactly what she wanted to do."
"I wanted to start with that because I think the literary culture is often masculinized. But many of our teachers are women. Often times, if you're a reader it's because your mother is a reader — as mine certainly was. There are more men than women in this book but the women often, for reasons we all know, had to work twice as hard to get to where they were."
It's no coincidence then that Freeman uses two strong women as bookends to the anthology.
"I wanted to end with a writer who was my most recent passion – Jennifer Egan," the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "A Visit From the Goon Squad."
Freeman says he structured the book by grouping authors together who operated on similar wavelengths.
"I was trying never to jar the reader. Trying to make it hard for them to put the book down. So each person would lead into the next person logically. I didn’t want it to be chronological."
True storytellers, many of whom grace the pages of "How to Read a Novelist
," write because they have to, Freeman says. And for some novelists, telling stories about a place has a political dimension.
"We have so many freedoms that it is often important to remind ourselves that it's not the case the world around. And the writers who emerge out of that pressure I think are heroic. The fact that they can write against tyranny in some cases, or censorship in some cases, and still make beautiful art is what makes them exceptional."
Writers who speak out against power, including American authors, will always be important, Freeman says.
"I think one of the things that makes American literature so strong is that it is deeply skeptical and questioning of what it means to be American. That there are contradictions in that and there are doubts and that the American dream is in some ways very fleeting and not very accessible for many people. But the very act of questioning that is I think what makes the literature strong.
"I think a writer . . . the best ones . . . can be a bridge between your inner life and the outer life of the culture. Because the novel is so much part of society and culture."
And for someone who has served as a key architect in building those bridges, Freeman has very little patience for negative book reviews.
No one walks into a bookstore looking to find something they hate, he says. And he adopts that same philosophy when choosing which books to review and how to review them.
"If writers were perfect they wouldn’t write novels. We fail. That's what makes us human . . . Life is short, praise what's good."
Most writers, Freeman contends, are looking for expiation when they write — to know they're okay.
"But you can't ask the reader for that. Sometimes you have to edit things out that should be told to a therapist — not an audience."
For Freeman, his source of expiation may come from a foray into poetry.
"I've been writing poems the last five or six years and I think I have a collection but I don’t know. Hopefully that's next. And a book slightly similar to this but about poetry called 'The Alphabet of American Poetry.'"
He doesn't say whether literary agent Nicole Aragi, who also happens to be his longtime partner, will be involved in the publishing process. (They met when he sent her a manuscript of a novel he had written - she rejected him as a client.)
"I feel very lucky being able to do what I've done. I don’t know if it was ever preordained that I would get to do this for a living and get to talk to so many interesting people . . .," Freeman says, pausing meditatively.
"To have someone else to share it with means everything in the world."
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