Literature/how to understand a novel
I am very interested in modern novels and follow writers such as Atwood and Franzen very closely. I have read all Margaret Atwood has ever written, and also just finished Franzen's Purity which both amused and confused me.
The reason I am asking this question is to be able to better understand where Franzen is coming from.
I need to know what to make of novels in general, and how to interpret and think about them.
Franzen's "Purity" and "Corrections" were both very hard for me to interpret and understand, although I generally very much enjoyed the various plots and characters in both works.
Do I have to read the history of literature, or anything on the critique of literature to be able to better understand the evolution of the American novel and to better understand contemporary authors such as Franzen?
Specially with Franzen, it seems to me that several different themes and plots are being pursued at the same time, and I'd like to have a more educated perspective on contemporary American literature.
I am happy you are starting where you are - I have also read a most of Atwood and Franzen, but I have not read Purity yet.
This is a relatively big question, and of course there are many, many elements to consider when examining a work. It can start at the core with the simple elements of literature (character, setting, structure) and move up to critical interpretations (New Criticism). In many ways, it starts with what you personally think about what you read - how you feel the characters were motivated, why they chose to do what they did, and how it affects the work as a whole. To make a comparison, you can enjoy a glass of wine even if you are not a professional sommolier who has training on how to taste the wine, what to consider, how much its value and rating is, and it is reasonable to enjoy a $10 bottle more than a $400 bottle because of what you think about it and how you enjoy it.
That said, on a simple level I will share some starting off points...
Read "How to Read Literature Like A Professor" by Thomas C. Foster
and "How To Read A Book" by Adler and Van Doren.
Then, I would tell you to try to read as many of what we consider to be the canonical classics as possible - the more you read, the more you will be exposed to great writing and be better at examining what really resonates with you. Of course, what is great about every book is different!
Some lists to start with:
Time Magazine's Canonical list
The Modern Library's list
The Guardian's list
If you want, then you can check out New Criticism to see how approaches can change depending on which "lens" you choose to look at the work through (this also works for art, film, theater, music, etc). There are many books about this topic, and also many books that contain studies and collections of New Criticism essays on the novels in the lists above, as a matter of fact (Harold Bloom has a whole series of them - most libraries own quite a few). Here is a wikipedia on New Criticism... https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Criticism
I hope this has helped a little - it is a relatively BIG topic, and there are a lot of approaches, but I am sure that Foster and Adler's books will set you on the right track. I was an English major, I have an MA in literature, and I am working on an MFA, and I still know there are a lot of approached and there is a lot to discover ten years of higher education later. Please let me know if you would like anything clarified or expanded on.