When it comes to reading I am rather slow, both mechanically and intellectually. I am often conscious of reading in a superficial and non-analytical way, although clearly there is a difference between reading for pleasure, entertainment and relaxation and reading as an active process of discovery, enlightenment and challenge. Writers need to be readers and I recently felt in need of some kind of ‘refresher’. So I followed one of the free courses offered by FutureLearn, called How to Read a Novel, https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/how-to-read-a-novel#section-overview
at which a few of my friends laughed and commented. ‘Don’t you know how to do that already!’
What attracted me to the course was the fact that it involved no cost, was online and allowed participants to do as much or as little as they pleased. Also, and more importantly it featured four novels and two writers I had never heard of, but which were shortlisted for the James Tait Black fiction prize 2017: C. E. Morgan’s The Sport of Kings, Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You, Eimear McBride’s The Lesser Bohemians, and Jo Baker’s A Country Road, A Tree. These were books I would never have chosen to read, (ranging as they did from a large American ‘saga’ type novel, to an erotic gay work) but guided by the excellent presentations by the course leader (Dr Alex Lawrie, University of Edinburgh), short articles and interviews with the writers, I was able to appreciate, if not to like, the particular qualities of each book.
The course took a fairly standard approach to the study of fiction, by considering the elements of plot, characterisation, dialogue and setting, but I liked being reminded of these basic ingredients and found the extracts used to elucidate them revealing. Whatever else the books did for other readers, for me they provoked a response and triggered some important questioning around the use of the certain techniques in fictional writing. Participants (from anywhere in the world) were invited to comment and answer questions at certain points in the course. Some of these offered very useful insights too. Overall, I found this course a refreshing and stimulating experience and I was also motivated to experiment with different techniques in my own writing.