Note number 24
Town, gown and its own best self

How writing works

The majority of literary criticism doesn't seem to me to be any use to a writer at all, and in my grumpier moments I even think that writers shouldn't read it, for fear of their fiction becoming an exploration of literary theory, which really is putting the cart before the horse. I certainly know several people who, being determined to become writers, read English at University, and were then too daunted to put creative pen to paper for a decade. Equally, at the other end of the spectrum, I find many how-to-write books too prescriptive of a single way to write, and a single kind of good writing to aim at. But in between are what I call the how-to-read books. There are really rather few of them, but they're more useful, I'd suggest, than a whole library full of the others. By talking about how novels actually work for an attentive general reader, they offer the best possible pair of glasses for a writer, for a writer is always, actually, a writer-reader: we are our own first reader, and it's our readerly response to our words which trains and refines our writerly process. And the other important thing about these books is that, although ostensibly works of criticism, they're all written by practising novelists.

The granddaddy of them all is E M Forster's Aspects of the Novel. As he says, you could take six novels which everyone agrees to be really good, and yet find they have almost nothing in common: therefore no conclusions can be drawn or rules promulgated about what makes a 'good' novel. What we can do is talk about how good novels work. When I went back to the book recently, though, I was surprised to find how slight it is: as I recall, it was one of the first books of this kind which I read, so it pinpointed some things which seemed to me a revelation at the time, but are commonplace to me now. Or maybe that's a measure of how completely I absorbed what it says.

The next one I came across was David Lodge's The Art of Fiction. There seems to be something about this genre which means it's often spawned in non-traditional breeding grounds; Lodge's book (like Ruth Padel's 52 Ways of Looking at a Poem) began as a newspaper column. It still has something of that serendipitousness about it, hopping between 'Teenage Skaz', 'Lists' and 'Narrative Structure', using a single novel to illustrate each one as Padel uses a single poem. But in fact it covers a lot of ground in a highly readable way. I also like the way that the serendipitousness seems like a refusal to offer a comprehensive how-to guide: no prescription for the way to read here, or the journey one should take. It's more like being handed a torch with a brilliant beam, for whatever journey you choose to take.

Francine Prose's Reading Like A Writer is very interesting, because she thinks in terms of units of writing, so the first chapter headings are 'Words', 'Sentences', 'Paragraphs', 'Narration', and we're halfway through the book before we get to 'Character' and 'Dialogue', which to non-writers might seem to be where you'd start. So, compared to the Lodge, it has a stronger sense of how all the parts of the machine fit together. And if you've ever wondered why some of us are so passionate about Chekov, her last chapter is the best explanation I've ever read of why.

John Mullan's How Novels Work was also born in a newspaper column, though they were book-by-book, and extracting the general issues from that format has left a good few repetitions. But it is very interesting, and perhaps maps best onto how we conventionally think of novels: different options for voices, structures, character, style and so on. And I'll love the book forever, first for coining the concept of the 'inadequate' narrator, and then for stating so clearly what I've long believed, that the more that fiction tries to assert its factual respectability with bibliographies and historical notes and academic apparatus, the more it actually casts itself as something less than non-fiction, a pale imitation of dubious legitimacy, instead of the triumph of imagination which it should be claiming.

I'm sure there are other books of this kind, and if anyone wants to mention them in the comments, I'll be really grateful. But I confess that I held out for a long time against James Woods's How Fiction Works, purely on the grounds of what I felt was a very annoying, de haut en bas article in (I think) The London Review of Books. I didn't think I'd care for his take on writing, plus he's more of literary critic than a novelist, though he has written a novel. So when my PhD supervisor lent me her proof copy of the book, I took it with faith in her judgement that it was what I needed, but also a certain bristling.

How wrong I was. Indeed, I've now gone out and bought my own copy so that I can pencil notes in it with a clear conscience. It's nothing like as comprehensive as most of the others, being more a series of observations - this of all of them, might be best titled 'Aspects of the novel' - in fact it's a decidedly slim vol, although everything he says is worth reading. But what I've chiefly taken from it is a masterly exposition of free indirect style: how it works, why it works, and why it offers some of the greatest possibilities in narrative. The writer/reader who recoils from being told what to think by an authorial voice is missing the point, Woods argues. Once we've stopped being so childish, then we're open to the irony inherent in any narrative form which slips and slides between the narrator's and the character's point-of-view, voice and sensibility. Of all the narrative arts, this is the possibility which is unique to fiction: that we can be at once both inside and outside a character's consciousness. If you think that the greatest works of art are those in which form and content - medium and message - interact most inextricably, then surely free indirect style is the very embodiment of that inextricability.