A Review of “The Art of Fiction” by David Lodge

Literary criticism is often daunting for a novice. I have ploughed through a lot of serious critical tomes in my life (most of them in Malayalam) to enhance my reading experience, but I must confess that I have been only partly successful: many of those erudite essays were way over my head. And when it comes to literary theory, I must shamefacedly say that I have still not understood the difference between “Classicism”, “Modernism” and “Post-Modernism”. Any mention of “Deconstruction” is enough to have me heading for the high hills! And even though I can write a grammatically correct sentence without help, the mention of “synedoche”, “metonymy” and the like makes me go weak in the knees.

However, as an avid reader, I am always interested in knowing what makes great literature work. What magic do these wordsmiths have, which we ordinary mortals lack, which makes us go to them again and again? It has been my dream to find a critic who would explain the tricks of the trade in simple terms for me – a dream which was realised through the above book.

In The Art of Fiction, popular novelist David Lodge explains the tools of the writer’s craft in simple English. It comprises fifty short articles, originally published as pieces in a newspaper column. Instead of quoting theory, Lodge takes one or two novels as example and uses them to illustrate particular aspects of writing good fiction. Fittingly, he begins with “Beginning” and ends with “Ending”!

Some of the aspects Lodge describes are common to all fiction (beginning, ending, point of view, introducing a character, suspense) while some deal with specific techniques writers use (stream of consciousness, interior monologue, repetition, defamiliarisation, time-shift): yet other chapters introduce us to schools of writing (Magical Realism, Surrealism). There are also interesting chapters on titles (I never really pondered on how much authors sweat over these!), the use of lists in stories, and the possibilities of the telephone. I found every one of them fascinating.

The author quotes from the story he is going to discuss at the beginning of each chapter, which passage is then analysed. This analysis is used as a springboard for jumping into wider aspects of the subject. Before one knows, one is engrossed in the analysis; and in the case of the stories one has read, it creates the classic “aha!” reaction – like seeing the secret behind a magic trick. And it also gives one the chance to ruminate on the same technique used by different authors (for example, Lodge’s analysis of the time-shifts in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie immediately had me comparing it with A Visit from the Goon Squad, a novel written entirely based on this technique).

Newton said: “Genius is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration.” The same can be said of literature. The author’s inspiration, without the proper craft to package it, often falls flat. This book gives us an introduction that hallowed craft of the great writers; it also illustrates the fact that one can’t separate the subject from the form in case of great writing, for the novelist chooses the form of his story based on what he wants to convey. David Lodge introduced me to that craft in a very accessible way – and he has also inspired me to read the greats with a greater appreciation for their technique.

If you are a book-nerd like me without much knowledge of the workings of the great literary machine, this book is for you.

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