The 23 Laws of Reading a Novel – How to Read Novels Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster

In fact, this voice is reflected in the 23 Laws of Reading a Novel that are scattered throughout the pages of the book. I’ve gathered them and decided to include them here, for two reasons: my love for lists and my instinct to reread these laws every now and then.
  1. The Law of Getting Started: The opening is the first lesson in how to read the novel.
  2. The Law of Bogus Locales: Places in a work of fiction are never real but must behave as if real.
  3. The Law of Look Who’s Talking: The narrator of a fictional work is an imaginative and linguistic construct, every bit as much as the characters or events.
  4. The Law of Narrative Unreliability: Stop believing the narrator when you see the word “I.”
  5. The Law of Hearing Voices: The narrative voice in a novel is a device invented by the writer.
  6. The Law of Conservation of Characters: Thou shalt not burden the punters with needless character development.
  7. The Law of Bad Actors: We will follow the exploits of villain-heroes, but only if they give us something in return.
  8. The Law of Chapter and Verse: A chapter, as a section that makes sense for its particular novel, follows no rules but its own.
  9. The Law of Universal Specificity: You can’t write about everywhere or everyone, only about one person or one place.
  10. The Law of People and Things: Characters are revealed not only by their actions and their words, but also by the items that surround them.
  11. The Law of Narrative Diction: By their words shall ye know them.
  12. The Law of Novelistic Style: There are no rules for sentence length and structure except those dictated by the novel in which they’re used.
  13. The Law of Streaming Narrative: All representations of consciousness are arbitrary and artificial.
  14. The Law of Character Clarity: To understand characters, you have to know their deepest desires.
  15. The Law of Crowded Desks: When a novelist sits down to begin a novel, there are a thousand other writers in the room.
  16. The Law of Novel Paradox: Novels grow out of intensely private obsessions, which writers then must make public and accessible to readers.
  17. The Law of Universal Connectedness: Every novel grows out of other novels.
  18. The Law of Us and Them: Readers choose the degree to which they identify with characters.
  19. The Law of Fictional Ideation: It doesn’t make any difference how good the philosophy is if the fiction is lousy.
  20. The Law of Narrative Unity: The best way to organize a novel is the way that makes the most sense for that particular book.
  21. The Law of Shutting Doors: The degree of closure in the ending of a novel is in direct proportion to the eagerness of the novelist to please his audience.
  22. The Law of Now and Then: Every novel is an act of violence, a wrestling match with the historical and social forces of its own time.
  23. The Law of All Reading: Own the novels you read.

But really, there is only one ultimate law: The Law of One Story. Okay, I just made that up, but take a look at this passage:

[...] there is only One Story. It’s always been there, is still there, is always the same, is always changing. Every story, poem, play, movie, television commercial, and political speech–the whole shootin’ match– that has ever been told, written, remembered (no matter how vaguely) is part of that story. What that means is that literature, it its broadest sense, is all part of one system. You can be influenced by and can know a good bit about novels you’ve never read, stories you’ve never heard. Why? Because things you have read mention and make use of them. And sometimes the writers of those works haven’t read the original tales, But they’ve been touched by them. Literature, in other words, is a system, a worldwide shared experience across millennia. There are connections everywhere because everything is connected.

4 star - really liked itIt makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it? And still, we keep on reading despite the sense that somehow, somewhere, we’ve seen this setting, we’ve heard of this character, we’ve felt the same emotions, we’ve read the same message. Do we really need to ask why keep on reading if it seems just the same as the others?

I don’t think so. Besides, if I were forced to answer that, I’d ask back, why not? I do not wish to go about all that stuff about the richness of literature. A lot has been written on it and I suppose any book lover already knows about that. Why do I suppose that? Because like literature, we book lovers are also one big interconnection. Despite our differences in taste, we are one.

So how about you, what’s your story?

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14 thoughts on “The 23 Laws of Reading a Novel – How to Read Novels Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster

  1. I remember seeing this book at Barnes & Noble and thinking, “I spent four years learning deconstructing novels. What else could this author possibly have to say that I haven’t heard.” Reading over your list here though it made me once again realize all the reasons I love reading good literature. Actually, the good and the bad, because that lends itself to literary criticism which to any English student is just like being a kid in a candy shop. Oooo points of discussion. Do tell! And yes, “Own the novels you read.”

    • I don’t think we can ever exhaust the number of things that we can learn and discuss from literature. There is always something, however significant or trivial, that we can pick up or relearn (especially in my case, since I have a tendency to forget things that I learn).

      And yes, the last law, I think, is the most important of all. Thanks for dropping by! :)

  2. My story? Don’t think to ask me that question again, it’s a very long and boring story. No good stuff about it but I’m sure in the near future someone might write one story about me.

    Congratulation for finishing this too-much-spoiler book from Kuya D. Hope I could find a copy of that book since I need it for reading thicker books you mentioned from your other blog post.

  3. I wish this book had been around at the time I did my lit degree. Thanks for sharing it though you do realise that now I have yet another book I have to buy and add to my growing pile of books yet to be read…

  4. You know, after I read this post last week, I didn’t really give it much thought, but the list kept coming back to during the weekend while I was reading Black Swan Green…especially #s 3, 4, and 5.

  5. What does that mean exactly, “own the novels you read?” I was thinking about the point of the author in writing a book like that. Is he saying that while reading a novel, we should keep those things he listed in mind..in order to fully appreciate and understand what we read?

    • What he’s trying to say is that we should give ourselves to the novel. Like how can we fully enjoy a novel if we resist against it? I would have loved to type all the following paragraphs after each law (since there are always elaborations for each), but I might be accused of plagiarizing. :D

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