E.M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel deserves its place in the canon of literary criticism. It is an admirable work, which, despite its defects, instils a confidence in Forster's formulations. That these Clark Lectures (of the academic year 1926-7) followed those of T.S. Eliot only helps highlight the gulf in academic approach, the playful appreciation adopted by Forster being diametrically opposed to that of the patrician and doctrinaire Eliot. The easygoing charm and chattiness endear the text to the reader, its many whimsies a welcome change to the drier literary criticism of today.
Forster makes no apologies for his narrow outlook. Although 'English poetry fears no one', Forster feels the English novel trails behind that of its continental peers, especially the great Russians, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. But such a reductive base can still support the scaffolding of Forster's ahistorical theories, and thus he goes on to unravel the timeless ideas of story, plot, people, fantasy, prophecy, point of view, rhythm and pattern. The distinction between flat and round characters may seem simple, but it is valid still, as the contemporary novel continues to be hobbled by problems of characterisation. Is this an insolvable problem, the predominance of depthless characters in modern fiction?
Critically, though, there are flaws, and Forster's narrowness is one. Forster refuses to explore the Modernist titans of the 1920s in any great depth, and so the majority of his examples predate this revolutionary movement. James Joyce's Ulysses gains only a passing and begrudging respect, while Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence and H.G. Wells are barely mentioned. So when Forster rallies against the novel's subservience to chronological Time, this cursory glance at the modernists seems a weakness, as they had already undermined the notion of textual linearity. An intriguing question then arises: did Forster fear, or simply dislike, the work of his contemporaries? It seems a little of both.
But that is a small failing, and one that doesn't detract from the work's overall success. As far as readable literary criticism goes, this is an essential and thoughtful exposition on the novel's compositional processes. Nevertheless, Forster made no claims to academic rigour, believing us to learn far more by simply enjoying a book rather than pedantically studying it. And so it's in the mixed garb of the practitioner-critic that Forster performs his most important task: to show the worth and enjoyment of reading.
I'd rather not quibble over stars...this book gets one less from me only in comparison with even more useful books like John Gardner's ON BECOMING A NOVELIST, which is considerably tighter. Forster's book is a kind of literary bed spread, a sprawl of spirit that sometimes wanders off in search of itself, alas in vain. I know that I am reserved also because one of my favorite novelist, Henry James, gets a bit of a beating...I understand why of course but I still must punish Mr Forster, the purveyor of stern stereotyping as far as James is concerned...still, like the books by Brande, Gardner, King on writing, I regularly return to this one, easy as it is to skip some of the bitchier passages. Just like with these other books, the author's own weaknesses as a writer come theough in his assessments though his take on issues of craft is always lucid and valuable: Forster's canvas was limited, in this he reminds me of another, Nabokov, whose criticism is as nasty as it is narrow...but this is for another review, I suppose.
So unassuming that Woolf called him The Mole, Forster restores the good name of belles lettres in this deceptively intelligent, determinedly unbuttoned critical exercise. If your idea of lit crit is Paul de Man, doubtless you will not take to Forster's elegant, theory-lite Englishry, but it is a delight. He takes you through ideas about the novel in short compass and an utter lack of pretentiousness. That doesn't mean he isn't a stimulating and highly intelligent judge, especially in his famous explanation of what distinguishes plot and story. You can go from this to his excellent essays in 'Abinger Harvest' and 'Two Cheers for Democracy,' then you can proceed to James Wood and Frank Kermode. Those alone will provide you with formidable critical resources through reading immensely enjoyable books, that last quality much underrated and conspicuous here. A treat.
If you have any interest in the novel as an art form, this should be on your reading wish-list. But don't labour under the impression that 'Aspects of the Novel' is worthy in the sense of being dry, tedious or difficult. It is easy to read, delicious to dip into, entertaining and down to earth. Forster is unpompous, straightforward, personal and writes (or, more properly, speaks) to all - it's not a 'critics' or academics' book - it really is for all who are simply interested in the genre as a whole. Divided into comnon-sensical sections (people, story, plot, patterns etc.), Forster uses a large range of examples and extracts to make his opinions and arguments come to life. This book does explain ideas the reader is likely to know - what is a flat character as opposed to a rounded character, for example - but in a way that clarifies those ideas, and makes them seem new, shiny and interesting. From such a master of the genre, this was always going to be a great, influential book; it was just a surprise what an enjoyable one it was too.
E M Forster is one of the genius Edwardian writers. He was homosexual in an era when such relationships were near impossible and his writing displays all the intensity and agony of his situation, here, in a brilliant series of essays, he deconstructs the novel into six parts:
The Story People The Plot Fantasy Prophecy Pattern & Rhythm
Approximately these are layers of attainment for any book, so a simple story that keeps the reader involved is the minimum necessary, whilst some interesting characters represent the next level up and so on. Prophecy, Pattern and Rhythm are exotic concepts that even Forster's down-to-earth approach can't quite work out but which are clearly the difference between a book that is workmanlike and one that is a work of art - at least as far as he is concerned.
To illustrate his thinking, he imagines all the great authors of the world are gathered in one room at one time, so that it is not necessary to think about when something was written or what came before it, but only to look for common threads between writers, whenever they worked. This is a lovely way to think about books and gives Forster huge freedom to roam the world of literature for illustrations in support of his views. He zooms in on few favourite books from across the centuries - Moby Dick, Emma, Moll Flanders and so on - with extensive side-by-side comparisons that illustrate his six points. He focuses mainly on English writers but considers Russia to have provided the truly great books and, except for America, he is almost completely silent about the rest of the world
This collection, originally delivered as the Clark Lectures within a short period in 1927, exactly describes Forster as a person even if it doesn't exactly describe the Novel. It is delivered in a very accessible and fluid style and he disguises some quite strident views about good and bad writing within a very intelligible formula. If you think Forster is a lightweight comic author then you will hate this work. On the other hand if you believe that Forster was a subtle genius who chose to wear his learning lightly you will very much appreciate it. These essays are nearly 100 years old and so his six points have been fantastically twisted, subverted, reversed, upended and mirrored in cinema, TV and literature since. But, as a starting point for enjoying the deconstruction of the novel this is a wonderful and easily understood jumping off point.
There is something unerringly endearing about Forster's way of expressing himself that makes this series of lectures on the makeup of the novel so easy to read. His disarming admission of his own unscholarly nature ("True scholarship is incommunicable, true scholars rare. There are a few scholars, actual or potential, in the audience today, but only a few, and there is certainly none on the platform.") puts him firmly on a par with the reader, and his conversational, nay chatty style, opens this little book to anyone who appreciates a good read.
These series of lectures were not an investigation into the history of the novel, nor a prescription of how to write good prose, but an attempt to describe the novel as an art form. Starting from the rather open definition of the novel as "a fiction in prose of a certain extent", Forster tackles a different component each lecture. The story, that satisfies our thirst to find out what happens next, is covered distinctly from the plot, which is the embodiment of our curiosity as to why things happen. He covers a novel's characters, explaining how they can be 'flat' or 'round', and how they differ from real human beings. The realm of 'fantasy', the author's rights in his own universe, are considered, as are matters of pattern, rhythm and viewpoint, with one particularly interesting heading of 'prophecy'.
In terms of whether the book is still relevant, Forster ended his lecture series with some conjecture on what the future may hold for the novel form, whether television would eventually make it even disappear altogether (thank goodness for Riepl's Law). His conjecture that whilst history and society move on, art remains static, is extremely interesting in light of the fact that these lectures were being given at the height of the modernist period, and pertinent works are only lightly touched upon. Furthermore, whilst he provides plenty of written examples, there are of course many references to classic works, which it probably helps to have read, but also references to authors who have been buried by posterity or are no longer so accessible.
On the whole, however, Aspects of the Novel remains fundamentally readable today. It is not a high-brow scholarly affair; rather a well-thought out observational piece, taking a broad look at that vast field of literature we call the 'novel'. Forster makes some extremely astute remarks, and his witty and conversational style bring these across in an easy and comfortable way, that makes you feel his observations are frankly obvious. He does not encompass the full gamut of literary inquiry, but instead picks and chooses to highlight his points and support his argument that there are no fast and steady rules for what defines 'the novel'. This is probably required reading for students of English literature, but it's easy accessibility and thought-provoking titbits should appeal to just about all keen readers with a fascination for the novel form.
These lectures are rightly called `classic' by literary critics. E.M. Forster's analysis is simple, but profound; his concepts are concise, but all-embracing, while his examples are short, but speak for themselves.
The novel, humanity E. M. Forster defines a novel as simply as `a fiction in prose of a certain extent'. But, `the intensely, stiflingly human quality is not to be avoided. If humanity is exorcized, little is left but a bunch of words.'
Story, values (actors) A fundamental aspect of a novel without which it could not exist is a `story', a narrative of events arranged in their time sequence. A story has only one merit: that of making the audience want to know what happens next (suspense). A story should also have values, like actors, to whom it did happen. People in a novel can be completely understood by the reader, if the novelist wishes it. One caveat however: his people must be convincing. Moreover, a writer can use different kind of characters: flat ones, like types, constructed around a simple idea, or round ones (complex). Another important issue in a story is the point of view from which the story is told.
Plot A plot is a narrative of events with the emphasis falling on causality. A plot should be intelligent (not simply based on curiosity), built on memory (relation with other facts) and contain elements of surprise and mystery (a suspension of the time sequences).
Fantasy, prophecy, pattern, rhythm Fantasy manipulates a beam of light which renders the objects more vivid than in domesticity. This can be done by an `adaptation' or a `parody'. Prophecy lays an accent on a universal theme. It is a tone of voice demanding humility and the suspension of the sense of humor. Novels can also have patterns (ex. symmetry) and rhythms (repetitions and variations).
Stand still? For E. M. Forster, `art stands still', because novelists will have to pass all the new facts through the old creative mind. But, for him, there is still a possibility that human nature will alter if individuals manage to look at themselves in a new way. In that case, however, they have a fight at their hands with every institution and vested interest (organized religion, the State) which are against such a search.
These brilliant lectures are a must read for all lovers of world literature.