How To Read a Novel by John Sutherland

Whoosh! There goes the media don
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Sifting through the pile of paperbacks on the study floor the other day, I turned up the first of John Sutherland's books that I ever bought. Issued by the University of London's Athlone Press in 1978, expensively priced and awash with lightly worn learning, Fiction and the Fiction Industry offered a vigorous analysis of the business of publishing novels back in the days of IMF crises and Callaghan-era austerity. Its author - plain "JA Sutherland" then, Reader in English at UCL - was at this point in his career known to a handful of cognoscenti for an exceptionally good book about Thackeray's working methods and had never been anywhere near the columns of the Guardian newspaper.

Twenty-eight years later, How to Read a Novel: A User's Guide addresses many of the same topics. Here consanguinity ends, for the new work, you can't help feeling, is pitched at a very different audience. Dinkily got up, a snip at £9.99, unthreateningly arranged in bite-sized chapters with a larksome puff from "critic and literary guide" John Sutherland on the back jacket, its target constituency would seem to be the kind of people who, while necessarily au fait with the idea of books, could do with a tad more professional expertise to light their path. This impression is confirmed by the author-biog which mentions Sutherland's "bestselling trilogy of literary puzzles and mysteries" while remaining ominously silent about his definitive biography of Mrs Humphry Ward.

And nothing wrong with that, it should hastily be added. For a six-page low-down on intertextuality, a brief excursion through "Famous First Words", a 10-paragraph - I counted them - disquisition on literary prizes, I can't think of anyone better qualified, anyone with quite the same combination of pizzazz, technical know-how and sheer enthusiasm as Professor Sutherland here. That said, for any PhD student hot on the trajectory of the media don, that tantalising modern presence simultaneously at large in the pages of Victorian Studies and the London Review of Books, this is an artefact of huge symbolical import.

In the old days, faced with even the thorniest Victorian three-decker or publishing conundrum, Sutherland used to glide through his material. Now, he practically surfs. The origins of the detective novel? There they go. The protocols of copyright? Whoosh. The only exceptions to this blink-and-you'll-miss-it progress are events such as the 2005 Man Booker Prize and its aftermath, where the chairman has an insider view to canvas. This is not criticism, so much as exposition, and one of Sutherland's most salient characteristics is the way in which he approves of everything. Bestseller lists (up to a point), film and TV dramatisations (a few minor niggles about the "Regencification" of Jane Austen notwithstanding), Zadie Smith - Sutherland admires them all. The thought that we inhabit a commercial marketplace almost deliberately designed to promote the interests of second-rate books over really good ones scarcely occurs to him and, if it did, it would fatally undermine the particular vantage point he has taken up on the sidelines.

Quite as characteristic, perhaps, are the tiny slips of detail that jump up every now and again to confound the impression of authorial nous. The bit about Dombey and Son and Vanity Fair first appearing in serial form in 1848, I corrected by consulting Sutherland's own magisterial Longman Companion to Victorian Literature - worth every penny of the £40 I paid for it in 1989 - and Sutherland himself correctly places Dombey's debut in the autumn of 1846 only a few pages later. Elsewhere, there is a reference to Will Self's The First Casualty, which I have a feeling was written by Ben Elton, and a claim that "in the 1930s, Arnold Bennett, the chief reviewer on the Evening Standard, could clear a whole edition of a new novel with a good notice." Bennett, sad to relate, died in 1931.

Minor lapses, of course, and my admiration for Sutherland, his life, work and opinions remains as fervent as it did back in late 1970s teen-dom. On the other hand, however advantageously packed with useful information, this does rather smack of the marketing exercise. One reviewer observed of Sutherland's last book, an authorised life of Stephen Spender, that the proceedings were dominated by a soft yet insistent noise: the sound of Lady Spender breathing down the author's neck. If How to Read a Novel has a spiritual soundtrack, it is the sound of popping Chardonnay corks as, all over the country, the gangs of reading group members for whom this will make such an excellent Christmas present get down to business.

D J Taylor's latest novel, 'Kept: A Victorian Mystery', is published by Chatto