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ASPECTS OF THE NOVEL Paperback – September 14, 1956

4.4 out of 5 stars 55 customer reviews

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There are all kinds of books out there purporting to explain that odd phenomenon the novel. Sometimes it's hard to know whom they're are for, exactly. Enthusiastic readers? Fellow academics? Would-be writers? Aspects of the Novel, E.M. Forster's 1927 treatise on the "fictitious prose work over 50,000 words" is, it turns out, for anyone with the faintest interest in how fiction is made. Open at random, and find your attention utterly sandbagged.

Forster's book is not really a book at all; rather, it's a collection of lectures delivered at Cambridge University on subjects as parboiled as "People," "The Plot," and "The Story." It has an unpretentious verbal immediacy thanks to its spoken origin and is written in the key of Aplogetic Mumble: "Those who dislike Dickens have an excellent case. He ought to be bad." Such gentle provocations litter these pages. How can you not read on? Forster's critical writing is so ridiculously plainspoken, so happily commonsensical, that we often forget to be intimidated by the rhetorical landscapes he so ably leads us through. As he himself points out in the introductory note, "Since the novel is itself often colloquial it may possibly withhold some of its secrets from the graver and grander streams of criticism, and may reveal them to backwaters and shallows."

And Forster does paddle into some unlikely eddies here. For instance, he seems none too gung ho about love in the novel: "And lastly, love. I am using this celebrated word in its widest and dullest sense. Let me be very dry and brief about sex in the first place." He really means in the first place. Like the narrator of a '50s hygiene film, Forster continues, dry and brief as anything, "Some years after a human being is born, certain changes occur in it..." One feels here the same-sexer having the last laugh, heartily.

Forster's brand of humanism has fallen from fashion in literary studies, yet it endures in fiction itself. Readers still love this author, even if they come to him by way of the multiplex. The durability of his work is, of course, the greatest raison d'être this book could have. It should have been titled How to Write Novels People Will Still Read in a Hundred Years. --Claire Dederer


Collection of literary lectures by E.M. Forster, published in 1927. For the purposes of his study, Forster defines the novel as "any fictitious prose work over 50,000 words." The seven aspects offered for discussion are the story, people, plot, fantasy, prophecy, pattern, and rhythm. The author compares the form and texture of the novel to those of a symphony. As for subject, he expects the work "to reveal the hidden life at its source." Human nature, he concludes, is the novelist's necessary preoccupation. -- The Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of Literature
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 192 pages
  • Publisher: Mariner Books; 1 edition (September 14, 1956)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0156091801
  • ISBN-13: 978-0156091800
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.6 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (55 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #51,313 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Robert Moore HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on January 30, 2002
Format: Paperback
Though Forster structures his essays around such fundamental novelistic elements as plot, character, and language, this is a rather loosely constructed and free ranging discussion of the literary form that has come in the past two hundred years to dominate the Western world's literary preoccupations. It is not systematic, nor is it comprehensive. Its tone is more personal and impressionistic. Fortunately, Forster has a large number of tremendously perceptions about the novel and novelists, and because he couches these reflections in frequently brilliant sentences, this book makes for reading that is both insightful and delightful. It is also an intensely personal book, so that we gain a great deal of insight into Forster's tastes and quirks.
Nearly every chapter in this book has something to offer the reader, but I have found his discussion of the difference between flat and round characters to be especially useful in reading other novels. In Forster's view, a round character is one that can develop and change over the course of a novel's story. They adjust, grow, and react to events and people around them. They are fuller, and therefore more lifelike. A flat character, on the other hand, is essentially the same character at the end of the tale as at the beginning. They do not grow, do not alter with time, do no admit of development. Flat characters are not necessarily bad characters. As Forster points out, correctly, I think, nearly all of Charles Dickens's characters are flat characters. Not even major characters such as David Copperfield change during the course of their history.
I have found this distinction to be quite helpful in reading the work of various novelists. Some authors have almost nothing but round characters. Anthony Trollope is a premier example of this.
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This shortish book is composed of the transcripts of Forster's 1927 series of talks about the novel, and is divided into chapters on story, characters, plot, and pattern & rhythm. In my opinion the two chapters on fantasy and prophecy are less successful, but if you are considering this book then you should definitely read it. It's filled with wonderful lines and terrific criticism (both positive and negative) of contemporary novels by Austen, Wells, Scott, Dostoevsky, Proust, James and others, and it was this latter aspect that I found most enjoyable. There is also an index so you can find these references when you want to. Forster discusses the sense of time and space in literature, round and flat characters, food, sex, love, POV, story vs. plot and causality. I've been reading novels for several decades and have read a fair number of books about writing, and I still gained insight from this lively little book.
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Sometimes one reads a book and it opens up the brain and heart in such a way that one views the world differently thereafter. This is such a book. You will never again read a novel and think about the book in front of you or how it was written in quite the same way. There is nothing else like it.

Delving into this book was part of a quest over the past year to read books on writing by writers. The books did not address HOW to write a novel other than tangentially. Although there are a plethora of dubious choices along those lines, I stayed away from them. The books that I searched out were books on the process of writing, the very lonely experience of the writer in creating fiction.

Several of the books were fogettable. A surprising number of them were memorable, including Mystery & Manners by Flannery O'Connor, On Writing by Stephen King, and anything by Margaret Atwood.

Of all of the books that I read, this one was the best by far. It covered not only the process of writing but also provided a structure for discussing and understanding the novel art form.

As a result, I highly recommend this book for book clubs. When presenting this book recently to my book club of 14+ years as my pick, there was a collective groan. Upon finishing the book, we all thought that it was one of the best of the 125+ books that we had read. It gave us a missing structure and tools for moving discussions and disagreements forward. Several times over the years, one or more of us have disagreed over some book selection or an aspect of it, but the discussion would stall for lack of a way to bridge the various viewpoints. For the first time, we were able to go back through those arguments in a new light using the tools presented in the book.
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Format: Paperback
...the fundamental aspect of the novel is its story-telling aspect... -EM Forster, Aspects of the Novel
I liked this collected series of lectures on what makes for good novel writing much better than almost any of the novels that Forster actually wrote (A Passage to India being the lone exception). Forster treats seven different aspects--the story, people, plot, fantasy, prophecy, pattern, and rhythm--in a breezy conversational style. Along the way, he offers examples, both good and bad, from literary history. I found myself agreeing and dissenting about equally, but the whole thing was immensely interesting and entertaining.
Here are some of the observations that I agreed with and why:
A story "can only have one fault: that of making the audience not want to know what happens next."
One inevitably thinks of James Joyce's Ulysses, which by now has surely retired the title of "the book most likely to remain unfinished". No matter how revolutionary the technique, how insightful the observations or how compelling the characters, a book that you can put down and not care what happens next has failed in its most basic task. ----------------------
The constant sensitiveness of characters for each other--even in writers called robust, like Fielding--is remarkable, and has no parallel in life, except among those people who have plenty of leisure. Passion, intensity at moments--yes, but not this constant awareness, this endless readjusting, this ceaseless hunger. I believe that these are the reflections of the novelist's own state of mind while he composes, and that the predominance of love in novels is partly because of this.
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