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3.9 out of 5 stars
How Novels Work
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38 of 38 people found the following review helpful
TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 15 March 2009
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 matter. On the contrary, I found it all the more easy to read and - if need be - lay aside for a while to resume reading some days or weeks later, as all the pieces are 'bite-sized'.

In a little over 80 articles, as diverse as 'the anti-hero', 'weather', 'plot' or 'intertextuality', Mullan treats the following subjects:
- Beginning
- Narrating
- People
- Genre
- Voices
- Structure
- Detail
- Style
- Devices
- Literariness
- Ending

By no means will you find in this book an exhaustive treatment of the above-subjects, but all in all this still is a very good book to give you a good enough grasp of 'how novels work' to read them with all the more pleasure afterwards.
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22 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on 27 October 2008
This book is aimed directly at the interested reader as opposed to the scholar and works better for it. Of course, some will want deeper links to literary theory and a gretaer range of discussion but if, like so many, you read novels for pleasure as opposed to study and simply wish to know a little more as to how writers create the effects and emotions they do, then this is the book for you.

John Mullan does a superb job of guiding you through certain techniques used by writers to present their stories. Any complex theories are alluded to in clear, understandable language. For some this may dilute the quality but again, this book is aimed at the more 'general reader' who is perhaps less interested in the complexities of the theory itself and more interested in why the novels they read work as they do.

I would recommend this to any reader of fiction who is perplexed at how writers are able to move us as they do.
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on 1 September 2009
John Mullan wrote a weekly column for 'The Guardian' newspaper called 'Elements of Fiction'. In the column, Professor Mullan looked at novels of the recent past, many of which had become favourites of reading groups, such as 'Atonement' by Ian McEwan and 'The Blind Assassin' by Margaret Atwood. This book draws on that weekly column to provide a detailed examination of the novelist's craft. It looks in turn at each aspect of the novel, starting with titles and ending in epilogues and postscripts. As well as contemporary fiction, Professor Mullan also uses examples from the classics of English literature, such as the use of recollection in Daniel Defoe's 'Robinson Crusoe' and Jane Austen's use of free indirect style in 'Emma'. This books gets quite technical at times, but although Professor Mullan does employ terms like 'heteroglossia', he also provides lucid explanations within the text rather than having the reader refer to a glossary at the end of the book. 'Heteroglossia', if you were wondering, refers to a method of story telling with many different narrative voices, as in James Joyce's 'Ulysses', as opposed to the unified narrator's voice of Charlotte Bronte's 'Jane Eyre'.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on 5 February 2011
Anyone who simply wants to skim the surface of 'novels' and who is not at all interested in the process and mechanics of how a writer produces what they (the reader)is reading, will not be interested in this book. For those of us who are interested in the conscious (and unconscious?) writing process, then this book is a great place to begin. I won't repeat what other reviewers have already written, suffice to say that any wannabe writer or anyone with more than a passing interest in the novel should read this book.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
The author writes in an entertaining style as he explains the various components which make up novels with copious examples from fiction ancient and modern. It is the literary equivalent of a Haynes car manual for layman. For those people who felt that deconstructing a novel for months on end when they were at school destroyed the pleasure in reading, this book demonstrates how understanding the nuts and bolt of fiction can increase enjoyment.

`How Novels Work' covers such subjects as people, genre, voices, style and devices. The author looks at modern novels by such authors as Ali Smith, Nick Hornby and Graham Swift as well as classic authors such as Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Samuel Richardson. For me he helped to shed some light on the incomprehensible prose in James Joyce's `Ulysses' and reminded me why I enjoyed reading A S Byatt's `Possession'.

Whether you are looking for a clear exposition of the reasons for epistolary fiction or an explanation of why endings can be vague or clear cut then this might be the book for you. It might also help to remind people that Charles Dickens and Jane Austen can be read for pleasure and not just for the purposes of passing exams.

There is a useful bibliography at the end of the book, notes on each chapter and an index. The e-book edition I read also has an active table of contents and the notes are easily accessible from their place in the text.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on 12 November 2010
I wish I had read this book years ago ,a must for book group readers.
How refreshing to be able to read and immediately understand an academic book,this is a book that gets over the information in a clear concise and enjoyable way.
I loved it.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 8 June 2011
This is a fascinating insight into the mechanics of novels. Based on John Mullan's articles in the Guardian it looks at a wide range of, predominantly, contemporary fiction. From his articles he has extracted particular critical themes, such as narrating, people, genre etc., and then subdivides these into particular aspects within each theme e.g. tense, motivation, magical realism.

Each section is interesting and instructive. However, the structure of the book makes it more of a reference source than a cover to cover read, not least because the slicing and dicing of the original articles and the journalistic style make each literary reference clipped and fragmented, detracting from the undoubted critical skill underlying the work.

Nevertheless, well worth persevering with.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 7 September 2012
I bought the book for a class and look forward to the teachers comments. I have read many books on writing this is the first that actually explained the terms often used by scholars to those of us that want to write. The three hundred or so pages are broken into relevant chapters that are easy to read. The examples are relevant. Unlike other books it is not an ego trip for the author.
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Whether you are already and an author, aspire to write books, or just enjoy reading them I would recommend this book to everyone. I would defy you to read this and not think about novels in another way.

The market is saturated with how to write books, but most are not actually very use. The best, are the one’s which are inspirational, rather than how to. When I first went to college to study writing I took with me John Fairfax’s and John Moat’s The Way To Write (a brilliantly original book that spawned a series of not-so good books).

This is not a how to write book, but it will teach you everything about how novels work. This is a book-lovers book. You will read each of the sections and both realise things that you had noticed but not ever really considered, and come away with it with a list a mile long of more books that you really should read to add to your TBR pile.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
A very good book by John Mullan. Very good at bringing his point across and I would say a must for anyone wanting to know just how a novel does work. Mullan uses very down to earth language, which helps in the understanding of such a mind blowing subject.
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