Aspects of the Novel, by E. M. Forster

I hadn’t looked at this small book since university, so was intrigued when one of my book clubs selected it. The nine chapters are based on lectures Forster gave at Trinity College, Cambridge, and retain the somewhat casual syntax of speech. They are also surprisingly humorous.

When reading a book from my youth, I’m often surprised to find ideas that have become so deeply incorporated into my assumptions and expectations that I’ve forgotten their source. Here, too, I found much that I recognised. For instance, Forster takes the idea of suspense, which makes readers want to find out what happens next, and extrapolates to say that “what the story does is to narrate the life in time.” Then he adds that good novels also incorporate the life by values, meaning “something which is measured not by minutes or hours, but by intensity.”

I agree that a novelist who abandons time—”the thread of his story”—risks becoming unintelligible. You can have time that moves backwards or that jumps around, but you have to find ways to help the reader hold onto the thread. As one writing teacher once told me, you have to teach the reader how to read your book. I mentioned earlier that Jen Michalski’s The Tide King is a great example of how to do this effectively.

I also love this quote from Forster, which he has paraphrased from an essay in Système des Beaux Arts (the quotes are his):

“What is fictitious in a novel is not so much the story as the method by which thought develops into action, a method which never occurs in daily life . . . History, with its emphasis on external causes, is dominated by the notion of fatality, whereas there is not fatality in the novel; there, everything is founded on human nature, and the dominating feeling is of an existence where everything is intentional, even passions and crimes, even misery.”

This reminds me of a discussion I had with some friends this week about whether the extraordinary coincidences that have happened to all of us could be used in a novel. For example, my brother found a jigsaw puzzle at a yard sale where the picture is a photo of Lookout Mountain in Tennessee and among the people milling around are my family, quite clearly. I maintained that such coincidences could not be used, but one of my friends felt you could get away with one.

Forster goes on to say that to make your characters real, the writer must know everything about them. He will not, of course, share all of that information. “But he will give us the feeling that though the character has not been explained, it is explicable, and we get from this a reality of a kind we can never get in daily life.”

There have been many articles lately about the benefits of reading. I enjoyed this recent one by Lauren Martin. She cites psychologist David Comer Kidd: “‘What great writers do is to turn you into the writer. In literary fiction, the incompleteness of the characters turns your mind to trying to understand the minds of others.'” She goes on to say of readers: “Their ability to connect with characters they haven’t met makes their understanding of the people around them much easier. They have the capacity for empathy. They may not always agree with you, but they will try to see things from your point of view.”

Another quote from Forster about character: “Incident springs out of character, and having occurred it alters that character . . . characters, to be real, ought to run smoothly, but a plot ought to cause surprise.”

I’ve just given you a sampling of some memorable bits. There’s much more, including chapters on prophecy and fantasy. It reads smoothly, with examples from novels as varied as Pamela and Ulysses to illustrate his ideas.

What book has most helped you understand the craft behind the novel?

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