UCL News


Review: Whoosh! There goes the media don

20 August 2006

Sifting through the pile of paperbacks on the study floor the other day, I turned up the first of [Emeritus Professor] 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. …

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. …

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.

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, 'Independent on Sunday'