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Posts Tagged ‘literature’

Portrait of E. M. Forster by Dora Carrington

Portrait of E. M. Forster by Dora Carrington. via Wikimedia

[Note: This post originally appeared as my Goodreads review of “Aspects of the Novel.”]

I recently read E.M. Forster’s 1924 classic, “A Passage to India,” so I was interested to learn that he had written a book about fiction writing. “Aspects of the Novel” is based on a series of lectures Forster gave in 1927 at Trinity College, Cambridge.

Copy on the back cover describes “Aspects of the Novel” as “Forster’s renowned guide to writing.” However, to me it reads more like literary criticism than guidance. I found it interesting and enlightening but not highly practical for me as a novelist. Forster organizes his treatment around seven themes, or aspects:

  1. Story
  2. People
  3. The Plot
  4. Fantasy
  5. Prophecy
  6. Pattern
  7. Rhythm

Out of these aspects, I found his chapter on people, or characters, most useful, particularly his comments on page 75 about the distinction between “round” and “flat” characters, using Jane Austen as an example of round characterization:

Why do the characters in Jane Austen give us a slightly new pleasure each time they come in, as opposed to the merely repetitive pleasure that is caused by a character in Dickens? … [T]he best reply is that her characters though smaller than his are more highly organized. They function all round, and even if her plot made greater demands on them than it does, they would still be adequate. … All the Jane Austen characters are ready for an extended life, for a life which the scheme of her books seldom requires them to lead, and that is why they lead their lives so satisfactorily.

In reader reviews, I often see critical comments to the effect that a novel’s characters are “flat,” and I usually scratch my head over that criticism, especially when it appears in a review of a book that I have read and enjoyed. Maybe some reviewers are just looking for something to gripe about, and “the characters are flat” is a useful trope to fall back on. Or maybe my standards just aren’t that high.

But in any case, here in Forster is an explanation of flat-versus-round that makes sense to me as a writer and that provides some real guidance for developing good characters.

ARK — 4 September 2015

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That’s a provocative title, I know. The truth is that I don’t actually refuse to read professional book reviews. But I seldom do, and I’m about to explain why.

For one thing, I do have time to read books, and lots of them. But I don’t have time to read a lot of what is written about books.

I’m certain many readers of books don’t read book reviews for that same reason. But not having time in itself is a lame justification for not paying attention to professional book reviews. However, there are also two important reasons why I place limited value on professional book reviews:

  1. First, professional book reviewers make their livings writing book reviews, and that fact colors their writing about the books they read. They have motivation to write what they are ‘supposed’ to write about the latest literary sensation. But also, they have to pan a certain portion of the books they read. If a reviewer likes all the books they read and that’s what they say in their reviews, what use are they? So they have to pooh-pooh a certain number of books to justify their existence.
  2. My second reason won’t matter to many readers, but it explains my motivation for placing a low priority on professional book reviews: Most reviewers have to tow the line on current literary trends. That means they don’t comment on elements of books that I need to know about: Does the book contain explicit sex scenes, sadistic violence, or extensive profanity? (See “Should a Novelist Write Characters Who Use Profanity?“) I told you this point wouldn’t matter to many readers, but it does to me, and professional book reviewers have to ignore such considerations or risk the disdain of mainstream luminaries.

All that said, I will occasionally read a book review in a publication such as The New Yorker, or at least a portion of such a review — often such reviews are insufferably long. But more often I will pay the greatest attention to ratings and reviews on Amazon, where I can find out what I really want to know: Is this a terrible book, and does it contain a lot of swearing? Thanks for letting me know. I’ll find something else to read.

ARK — 18 August 2014

 

 

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I ran across the following passage from Kurt Vonnegut’s Palm Sunday: An Autobiographical Collage (1999), a passage which in turn is from a letter Vonnegut wrote to someone who objected to one of his novels:

If you were to bother to read my books, to behave as educated persons would, you would learn that they are not sexy, and do not argue in favor of wildness of any kind. They beg that people be kinder and more responsible than they often are. It is true that some of the characters speak coarsely. That is because people speak coarsely in real life. Especially soldiers and hardworking men speak coarsely, and even our most sheltered children know that. And we all know, too, that those words really don’t damage children much. They didn’t damage us when we were young. It was evil deeds and lying that hurt us.

I see some good reasoning here. Recently, someone took offense because a racist character in one of my stories used a racial slur. I was puzzled as to what else I could have done, as the scene in question took place among a group of young white boys in the southern U.S. in the mid-1960s, and there is no doubt that a racist teenager would have used a racial slur, however reprehensible that might have been.

For me as a writer, though, the issue of profanity presents a dilemma — I mean profanity that relates to sex and other bodily functions. I want my stories to be believable, but I don’t use profanity in my daily life (well, ‘hardly ever,’ as the Captain of the Pinafore might say) and neither do my Christian friends or family members. I don’t wish to influence anyone else to use profanity and I don’t wish to be influenced to use profanity by the content I consume. So for the most part, I prefer to use strategies that allow me to write fictional accounts that don’t (or hardly ever) involve profanity.

As far as what I read, I have read Vonnegut in the past, as well as many other popular and literary authors. I read fiction every day and love it. I have frequently abandoned a novel because of the profanity of the narrator or a character. On the other hand, I have sometimes tolerated a certain level of coarse language in order to benefit from an otherwise excellent piece of fiction.

ARK — 22 September 2013

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