In “How to Read a Novelist,’’ the award-winning literary critic John Freeman serves up 55 mini-profiles of contemporary writers. Each provides a glimpse into the working methods, early life and career, and literary aims of 39 men and 16 women writers. Some are household names — John Irving, Toni Morrison, and Philip Roth. Others, such as Indonesia’s Ayu Utami, Hungary’s Imre Kertész, and Kenya’s Ngugi wa Thiong’o, are likely to be known only to the literary cognoscenti. Most all of Freeman’s subjects, however, can boast of literary kudos: Pulitzers, Nobel Prizes, Booker Prizes, PEN Awards, National Book Critics Circle Awards, National Book Awards.
Freeman usually effaces himself (except in the introductory piece on John Updike, where he reveals that he broke every rule in the book about how to conduct an interview). Occasionally he can’t resist revealing his own biases, as, for example, when he describes Michael Ondaatje’s memoir “Running in the Family’’ as having “the sonic uplift of fiction and the sudden beauty of poetry” or when he bemoans the fact that Vikram Chandra’s novel “Sacred Games’’ didn’t win the 2007 Booker Prize.