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36 of 36 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Informative and entertaining
Amidst the dozens if not hundreds of 'books about books' or literary theory I found Mullan's work a very refreshing read. True enough, it shows that it is based on Mullan's weekly articles for The Guardian and was not from the very beginning conceived of and planned as a book as such, but that doesn't detract from the informed and insightful way Mullan treats his subject...
Published on 15 Mar 2009 by Didier

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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Not quite what I was expecting.
Not really what I was looking for. I really wanted help in writing a novel but this did not help me.
Published 8 months ago by Mrs Joanne Deakin


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5.0 out of 5 stars Review of How Novels work, 27 May 2014
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Clear and lucid, contained first rate explanations of all aspects of the novel and encouraged the reader to explore the subject further.
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5.0 out of 5 stars such a good book, 9 Oct 2013
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Louise H. Neame "Calmez" (Bermuda) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: How Novels Work (Paperback)
It's great to have next to your bed so that you can dip into it. I also teach IB english lit, and find it very useful especially when discussing structure of narratives.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Serious about writing: read this, 29 April 2013
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There are many books like this, but when a great writer goes to the effort of producing one, you should read it. You will learn more from reading such books as you will from reading many great novels. Francine Prose, 'reading like a reader,' is also worth a read.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Great book, 9 Mar 2013
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An excellent down to earth guide for an A Level English Literature student; I sent another copy to my niece.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Not quite what I was expecting., 23 Dec 2013
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Not really what I was looking for. I really wanted help in writing a novel but this did not help me.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting., 27 May 2010
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Scampo "Steve C" (UK) - See all my reviews
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Not quite what I wanted from the book, but still a fascinating and clear guide to how writers write novels!
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31 of 49 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A book about how novels work that doesn't, 15 Oct 2008
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This review is from: How Novels Work (Hardcover)
In his introduction John Mullan makes the important point that "space for quotation is one of the necessary privileges of criticism" and promises "to show how a critical vocabulary can make our opinions lucid." Unfortunately, my initial and perhaps somewhat naive enthusiasm that I was about to learn a whole lot of new and exciting things about how novels work soon deflated into indifference as I read on: the quotations rarely sparked my interest and the only critical vocabulary around was generated by me.

Anyone who's tried to write a review of a novel for this website knows how hard it can be. The difficulty lies in finding even a few hundred words to do justice to a few hundred thousand, to figure out why it either did or didn't work. In going from one novel to the whole of literature, the task not only becomes daunting for even someone as obviously well-read as Mullan. It also risks losing that personal edge. Mullan has the luxury of over 300 pages and focuses on the mechanics of "narrating", "voices", "structure", etc., but to what end? Although technical reasons might sometimes explain why a particular novel fails to grab us, it's doubtful they can adequately account for a novel's capacity to engage us emotionally as well as intellectually. It is telling that "emotion" does not appear in the index and does not feature as a section heading (while those perennial concerns of many readers - "Intertextuality" and "Heteroglossia" - do). Hamlet caught the mystery of how fiction works when he wondered how Hecuba could make the player weep. This book is more of a Hamlyn guide to the gearbox.

Mullan draws on a wide range of authors, and there is always the danger of dilution to the point of superficiality, if not absurdity. For example, he introduces Carol Shields as "a modern observer of ordinary women". Within a few lines, however, we learn that the "eldest of Reta's three daughters" in her novel "Unless" has dropped out of university and become a silent beggar. Hardly "ordinary". Elsewhere, he claims that literary novelists such as Julian Barnes and Iain Banks "often dabble in genre fiction - for the sales". No evidence from the authors is presented for this view, and it doesn't ring true. (In fact, I think Iain Banks tried getting his science fiction published without success until he broke through with the bestselling and "literary" Wasp Factory - the complete opposite of what Mullan is claiming.)

At one point I felt sorry that he has to read books (sorry, "texts") of literary theory on grim topics like narratology. (Such books, apparently, "often contain diagrams of the narratives they analyse".) Mullan's dry response to Mieke Bal's stunning insight that the "character is not a human being, but it resembles one" is "Just so." By including such an asinine remark in the first place, however, he accords it too much respect. Perhaps academic literary theorists - inappropriately aping the the third-person objectivity of the physical sciences - sacrifice their subjective responses and are afraid to talk about what really matters, which is whether a novel touches your soul or leaves you cold. The irony is, reading any decent scientist on how atoms work, how the mind works, how language works, will leave you both fascinated by the subject and envious of their profession. You will also be in no doubt that they love their work. The terrible conclusion after reading even a few chapters of "How Novels Work" is that, if this is what constitutes "understanding" in the world of literary criticism, I'd rather remain in ignorance.
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5 of 14 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Watery, 28 Feb 2011
This review is from: How Novels Work (Paperback)
After reading the flavoursome How Fiction Works by James Woods, I thought I would be in for another good meal of learning about the recipes of the masters. What this book turned out to be was more like food-photography of different aspects of the novel rather how the novelists cooked them up. In the age of churnalism, I guess this Guardian Columnist penned book shouldn't have surprised me; it feels strangely like a referral advert for the books mentioned. Avoid!
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How Novels Work
How Novels Work by John Mullan (Paperback - 14 Feb 2008)
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