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ASPECTS OF THE NOVEL Paperback – September 14, 1956
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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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What will you learn from this book? For one you will learn Forster’s distinction between “story” and “plot.” FYI, stories read as follows: “then this, then this, then this…” Plot reads as follows: “This caused this, which caused this.” Okay, that’s two chapters. Then we have two aspects of character. The first is what we now call the character’s interior life, and Forster calls his “secret life.” This is something known to the author and revealed as organically and realistically as possible in order to seduce the reader into the character’s mind and to intimately share his understanding of things. The second aspect of character is a Forster neologism, round versus flat characters. In a nutshell, flat characters are predictable and round characters surprise us. This perception of characters being more interesting to readers because of their dimensionality was an original insight of Forster’s.
Frankly, dear reader, (a familiarity Forster strongly discourages) the chapters on fantasy and prophesy may be skipped. He was after all being paid for a series of lectures and though he’d covered the topic in five chapters, he recognized the billing opportunity of carrying on for another four. In fairness the last is a three and a half page conclusion. It basically says that we may learn much from past masters but only creative new insights, new characters, and new craft will delight tomorrow’s readers. Future readers, that would be us, will have higher expectations.