Reading Novels is a unique piece of practical criticism, a comprehensive "poetics" of a genre that has not attracted a great deal of attention, at least not on this level. It is a reader's and student's guide that reaches beyond issues of individual texts and historical traditions to essential features of the form.
There are a number of sophisticated books of this kind that deal with poetry. But because of the length of individual novels, perhaps, or because of the difficulty of formalizing the conventions of a genre that is always foregrounding its departure from tradition, most books on the "rhetoric of fiction," the "nature of narrative," or "structuralist poetics" that have broken important ground in the last half-century have been aimed at a scholarly, professorial audience, not at a readership of students, teachers of introductory courses, and that endangered species, the general reader. All of these more common readers stand to benefit greatly from this new book. At the same time, Hughes's engagement with a wide range of French structuralist studies of the novel, of narrative, and of language in general makes this book valuable to scholars.
A great virtue of Hughes's approach is the way it navigates between traditional formalist approaches and postmodern theoretical ones. Another attractive feature of the book is the analysis of passages from a wide range of texts, from the eighteenth century up to the contemporary novel. The examples are taken from novels by Defoe, Radcliffe, Austen, Dickens, Gaskell, Eliot, Charlotte Bronte, Hawthorne, and Melville, as well as from works from outside the traditional canon that are now widely studied (by Collins, Braddon, Stoker, Gissing, Moore, Wells, Dreiser, Bennett). Modernists such as James, Conrad, Woolf, Joyce, Stein, Faulkner, and Beckett are included, as well as contemporary writers Ishiguro, Kureishi, Trevor, Brookner, Bellow, Roth, and Auster. Some of the topics covered include beginnings and endings, narratives and narrators, the creation of fictional worlds, description, dialogue, character, and the language of the novel.