by John Mullan
Until recent years, literary criticism was something that only professors and students did, sealed away in classrooms. Books about the workings of novels were invariably written in a language designed to be consumed in universities, and to warn off the general reader. But the proliferation of reading groups in Britain and America shows that literary analysis is not just for academics. Ordinary lovers of fiction have an appetite for criticism – for going back to a book, in the company of others, and finding out how it works. In fact, the popularity of reading groups shows that literary criticism and the pleasure of reading are not mutually exclusive at all.
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.
Yet it is not all experiment and innovation. The more you see of how novels work, the more novelists seem to owe to the past. You understand what the chapter divisions are doing in Carol Shields’s Unless when you see that Fanny Burney was up to the same thing in the eighteenth century. You can compare the use of meals in Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections with those in Dickens. You can see that Donna Tartt uses quotations in the manner of Henry Fielding. Contemporary novels and the classics are not remote from each other. Most of us, of course, are readers of both. We can find in both, if we look carefully, how the pleasures of novel reading come from the formal ingenuity of the novelist, how we enjoy novels more if we understand how novels work.
John Mullan is a professor of English at the University College of London. His newest book How Novels Work is drawn from his weekly Guardian column, “Elements of Fiction” and explains how the pleasures of reading often come from the ingenuity of the novelist.