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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Tuesday, 25 June 2019

"The Craft of Fiction" by Percy Lubbock

This is a thickly written book of literary criticism which considers a few classic novels (by Tolstoy, Henry James, Flaubert, Balzac, Dickens and Thackeray) and tries to understand some general principles. It was written in 1921 and therefore before many modernist novels were written.

He starts with a few general principles:
  • Novels are about creating characters. He points out that we do this all the time in everyday life, piecing together impressions of the people around us "from a series of glimpses and anecdotes". 
  • One key way of judging a novel is in terms of its verisimilitude. “A novel is a picture of life, and life is well known to us; let us first of all ‘realize’ it, and then, using our taste, let us judge whether it is true, vivid, convincing.” 
  • On the other hand: “A novel is a picture, a portrait, and we do not forget that there is more in a portrait than the ‘likeness’. Form, design, composition, are to be sought in a novel, as in any other work of art.
  • A key artistic rule should be for an artist, any artist not just a novelist, to allow him or herself no more latitude than necessary

He then goes on to the main thrust of his argument. He discerns two techniques which a novelist may use (although he later points out that most novelists don't pick and chose these according to the book but tend to stick with what they find "most congenial"). “In one case the reader faces towards the story-teller and listens to him, in the other he turns towards the story and watches it.” These techniques are the pictorial in which the narrator has a direct relationship with the reader, describing what is going on, a panoramic technique which can encompass large swathes of place and time but is relatively thin and the scenic in which the reader views the action as if viewing a play so that the characters speak for themselves, which is far less economical of words and which is constrained to the actual time and place, but which is much more vivid, so vivid that he suggests that the scene is used sparingly and is well supported (by the pictorial sections of the novel) in order that drama be not dissipated.

A key problem with the dramatic is that characters are only seen from the outside. (Lubbock was writing before the great 'stream of consciousness' novels such as Ulysses by James Joyce and Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf.) Lubbock recognises that: “Somewhere the author must break into the privacy of his characters and open their minds to us.” but he makes the point that: “Haphazard and unnecessary plunges into the inner life of the characters only confuse the effect, changing the focus without compensating gain.” It also means that the narrator themselves, if one of the characters, may the one least well-realised, since a narrator “is always in danger of seeming a light, uncertain weight compared with the other people in the book - simply because the other people are objective images, plainly outlined, while the seer in the midst is precluded from that advantage, and must see without being directly seen.” So, for example, he suggests that in David Copperfield the narrator “is but a shadow compared with Betsy Trotwood and the Micawbers and the Heeps.” 

Furthermore, the dramatic scene has to prepared for. The famous scene of Becky's downfall in Vanity Fairhas an artificial look, by comparison with the flowing spontaneity of all that has gone before” because Thackeray is not a natural theatrical writer and this is a theatrically dramatic scene and Thackeray failed to prepare for it which he could have done had he gone into more detail for the “great scene of Becky's triumph” which would have enabled a contrast; then “there would have been no necessity for the sudden heightening of the pitch, the thickening of the colour, the incongruous and theatrical tone.” In Anna Karenina (Lubbock is not shy at confronting what great art with its inadequacies) “there is no adequate preparation; Anna is made to act as a deeply stirred and agitated woman before she has the value for such emotions. She has not yet become a presence familiar enough, and there is no means of gauging the force of the storm that is seen to shake her.

Inevitably, as the plot thickens and a climax approaches - inevitably, wherever an impression is to be emphasized and driven home - narration gives way place to enactment, the train of events to the particular episode, the broad picture to the dramatic scene.

These techniques depend on the subject of the novel: “The less dramatic, strictly speaking, the subject may be - the less it is able ... to express itself in action and in action only - the more needful it is to heighten its flat, pictorial, descriptive surface by the arts of drama.”

Furthermore “There were times when the dramatic method is too much ... it leaves the story to speak to itself, but perhaps the story may then say too much to be reasonably credible. It must be restrained, qualified, toned down, in order to make the best effect.”


Other points made:
  • What was the novelist’s intention? ... If it cannot be put into a phrase it is no subject for a novel ... The form of the book depends on it, and until it is known there is nothing to be said of the form.
  • Tolstoy’s characters “are never less than absolutely true to themselves ... and yet changing and changing ... under the touch of time.
  • Many a novelist, making a further and fuller acquaintance with his subject as he proceeds, discovering more in it to reckon with than he had expected, has to meet the double strain.
  • The way in which nine novels out of ten begin - an opening scene, a retrospect, and a summary.
  • Flaubert is generally considered to be a very ‘impersonal’ writer, one who keeps in the background and desires us to remain unaware of his presence; he places the story before us and suppresses any comment of his own.”
  • Dickens’ later novels have this shape: “Beginning with a deceptive air of intending mainly a novel of manners and humours ... he insinuates a thread of action that gradually twists more and more of the book around itself.” This is a form “which he elaborated and made his own.”
  • The use of the first person ... composes of its own accord ... for the hero gives the story an indefeasible unity by the mere act of telling it.” In autobiography “ the writer is not expected to guide his ordinary design, but to let it wonder free. Formlessness becomes actually the mark of right form in literature of this class.
  • The epistolary technique which avoids presenting the action as a retrospective ... but it does mean that one’s correspondents must always be at a distance so that one is forced to correspond with them.
  • The Ambassadors, then, is a story which is seen from one man's point of view, and yet a story in which that point of view is itself a matter for the reader to confront and to watch constructively.”
  • He is tremendous, his taste is abominable - what more is there to say of Balzac?
  • Wherever ... his subject requires to be lodged securely in its surroundings, whenever the background is a main condition of the story, Balzac is in no hurry to precipitate the action; that can always wait, while he allows himself to leisure he needs for massing the force which is presently to drive the drama on its way. Nobody gives such attention as Balzac does ... to the setting of the scene.
  • Where Balzac takes in hand the description of a town or a house or a workshop, he may always be suspected, at first, of abandoning himself entirely to his simple, disinterested craving for facts. There are times when it seems that his inexhaustible knowledge of facts is carrying him where it will, till his only conscious purpose is to sit down on paper everything that he knows. He is possessed by the lust of description for its own sake, an insatiable desire to put every detail in its place, whether it is needed or no ... and yet the result is always the same in the end; when he has finished his lengthy research among the furniture of the lives that are to be evoked, he has created a scene in which action remove as rapidly as he chooses, without losing its due emphasis.
  • Nobody knows how to compress so much experience into two or three hundred pages as Balzac did unfailingly.
  • Dickens’s way of dealing with his romantic intrigues was to lead gradually into them, through well-populated scenes of character and humour; so that his world is actual, its air familiar, by the time that his plot begins to thicken.
  • Bleak House is a big survey of a quantity of odd and amusing people, and it is only by degrees that the discursive method is abandoned and the narrative brought to a point. Presently we are in the thick of the story, hurrying to the catastrophe, without having noticed at all, it may be, that our novel of manners has turned into romantic drama, with a mysterious crime to crown it.
  • The process of writing a novel seems to be one of continual forestalling and anticipating; far more important than the immediate page is the page to come, still in the distance, on behalf of which this one is secretly working.
  • Tolstoy’s strength lies in the way he turns each little glimpse of a scene into a vignette: “The lightest trifle of an incident ... becomes a poetic event ... It suddenly glows and flushes, and its effect on the story is profound ... and so the half page is not a diversion or an interlude; it speeds the story by augmenting the tone and the value of the lives that we are watching. It happens again and again; that is Tolstoy’s way of creating a life, of raising to its full power by a gradual process of enrichment.
There is much more to this fascinating book ... and he has made me want to read and reread all of the classic novels he describes. Ars longa vita brevis!

June 2019; 137 pages

Other books on literary criticism and writing novels:
The Art of Fiction by David Lodge
Aspects of the Novel by E M Forster

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