Guide to the Guides: Aspects of the Novel

Aspects of the NovelI hope those of you trapped in the heat wave are finding a way to stay cool. Whether you’re at the beach or locked inside with AC blaring, what better way to pass the time than reading a book about fiction writing (or at least my opinion of one). Today, I’m looking at E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, the text of a lecture series delivered in Cambridge in 1927 that has since become a classic.

The Great Parts

The organization—It’s appropriate that a book about novels should read like one, in the sense that it has a clear progression and cohesiveness. Forster’s work does that. It begins with an introduction on the purpose of the lecture and ends on the purpose of the novel; in between, there are chapters covering story, plot, people, and everything else that goes into fiction. But any guide can cover those, so what distinguishes this discussion? Forster’s skill is that he not only explains the elements in their own rights but shows how fiction works by their combination, how a story (a mere series of events) becomes a plot (a series of events with cause and motivation) when characters, round and flat, are introduced. This balance of depth and breadth, of separation and unity, makes for a clear, easy to follow, and comprehensive explanation of how fiction is put together.

The style—
It’s clear that this book began life as a lecture from the tone and approach. While Forster is from an earlier time (he was born in 1879), which means that his language is a bit more fussy and formal than we’re accustomed to, it’s still crisp and efficient. He favors clear examples—either from literature or ones he invents—in a subject that could easily get buried in abstract philosophizing. And his prose is studded with witticisms, sly and snarky judgments on other writers, and other fun touches that keep you going. How could you not want to read something not only brimming with insight, but also manages to use the word caboodle?

It touches on more than technique—As I hinted in my review of The Art of Fiction, one of the ways a fiction-writing guide can distinguish itself is to go beyond technical pointers and deal with the fundamental issues around literature, and Forster touches on these issues throughout the book. At several points, he discusses the limits of realism, in the sense that fiction—with its God’s eye view, clear cause and effect, and lack of privacy for characters—will never truly mimic real life. His conclusion eerily prefigures the debates raised by postmodernism by talking about the connections between the novel, culture, and human nature. Given that the current debate about literature is dominated by philosophers, linguists, and amateur politicians, writers must chime in on the important questions, or else fiction will turn in to a mere technical exercise.

The Not So Great Parts

Forster’s references—
Forster is a dead, white British male, and it should therefore come as no surprise that most of the authors he cites share at least some of those qualities. Defoe, Dickens, Austen, the Brontës, and James all make frequent appearances, along with authors only popular a hundred years ago. Thankfully, he gives some summary when he references a novel and his writing is so clear that you can get the gist of his point, but it still feels as though there is a nuance or depth missing. So, if you want the full Forster experience, you might have to take the summer to brush up on Brit lit before you tackle this book.

Fantasy and Prophecy—
Most of the aspects Forster identifies (character, plot, etc.) make sense; two chapters cover fantasy and prophecy, and it’s at this point the discussion breaks down. He isn’t quite clear what they mean, or how they differ from each other (although he insists they do). As far as I can tell, the concepts cover allegorical or philosophical novels, where understanding outside ideas are necessary for understanding the work. He stretches that observation over two chapters and, in the process, loses the clarity that had been his skill throughout the rest of the book. You get the impression that, at this point, Forster was reaching to come up with something to fill the empty hours in his lecture.

It is meant for novels—The word novel is in the title, and it isn’t misleading. While many guides deal with fiction of all shapes and sizes, Forster examines only the novel and gears most of his advice toward that form. Not only are his examples all novels, but most of his advice on things such as plotting and characterization assumes that the writer has several hundred pages to accomplish his/her goals. Most of his observations are general and fundamental enough that they can apply to any sort of fiction, but someone who deals primarily in shorter forms may not find this as useful as an aspiring novelist will.

If you aren’t interested in owning or reading a lot of writing guides, this is one essential I’d recommend. Most other guides, even the ones that have something fresh and interesting, still have a lot of the same advice (don’t use the passive voice, showing vs. telling, etc.), and this problem only gets worse if you’ve taken some writing workshops or if you’re a more experienced writer. Forster’s book avoids that trap: in every chapter, even the off ones, there’s something fresh and insightful beyond the normal technical pointers. Whether novice or widely-published expert, Aspects of the Novel should be on every writer’s shelf.

Ian McCaul has spent his whole life in Kalamazoo, MI, except for a brief detour at Grand Valley State University, where he recently graduated with a degree in English and writing. He is currently blogging, volunteering, writing, and applying to graduate schools.