ReadySteadyBlog

I've recently been enjoying John Mullan's How Novels Work (indeed, it was one of my Books of the Week last week). I failed to mention, however, that back on the 5th December, over on the OUP USA blog, John Mullan gave his fine book a nice puff:


Listen to most of the talk about fiction in the media and you will find it mostly concerns what novels are about. Yet novels grip us (or fail to grip us) not because of their subject matter but because of how they are written. And leading novelists of the last decade have carried experiments with form and structure into the mainstream of fiction. To take an American example, Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, a book with three narrative strands set in different times, intricately alluding to Virginia Woolf’s modernist novel Mrs Dalloway, managed to be a bestseller. In Britain in 2004 the bestseller list was for a while headed by David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas – a novel of six narratives in different times and genres, nested in a ‘Russian doll structure’, and a knowing variation of a technique developed by Italo Calvino in his supposedly avant-garde If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller

When is this imaginative innovation, and when is it just trickiness? What terms and ideas is it useful to have in discussing contemporary novels? Thanks to reading groups, these novels are often subject to the analysis and argument that used to be reserved for the classics. The features that we most want to describe (plot, dialogue, character) are not mysterious, but emerge much more clearly if we understand what the words mean, and can compare different examples. Even the stranger-sounding novelistic techniques (metanarrative, prolepsis, amplification) are easily explained and easy to recognize.

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