There are all kinds of books out there purporting to explain that odd phenomenon the novel. Sometimes it's hard to know whom they're are for, exactly. Enthusiastic readers? Fellow academics? Would-be writers? Aspects of the Novel, E.M. Forster's 1927 treatise on the "fictitious prose work over 50,000 words" is, it turns out, for anyone with the faintest interest in how fiction is made. Open at random, and find your attention utterly sandbagged.
Forster's book is not really a book at all; rather, it's a collection of lectures delivered at Cambridge University on subjects as parboiled as "People," "The Plot," and "The Story." It has an unpretentious verbal immediacy thanks to its spoken origin and is written in the key of Aplogetic Mumble: "Those who dislike Dickens have an excellent case. He ought to be bad." Such gentle provocations litter these pages. How can you not read on? Forster's critical writing is so ridiculously plainspoken, so happily commonsensical, that we often forget to be intimidated by the rhetorical landscapes he so ably leads us through. As he himself points out in the introductory note, "Since the novel is itself often colloquial it may possibly withhold some of its secrets from the graver and grander streams of criticism, and may reveal them to backwaters and shallows."
And Forster does paddle into some unlikely eddies here. For instance, he seems none too gung ho about love in the novel: "And lastly, love. I am using this celebrated word in its widest and dullest sense. Let me be very dry and brief about sex in the first place." He really means in the first place. Like the narrator of a '50s hygiene film, Forster continues, dry and brief as anything, "Some years after a human being is born, certain changes occur in it..." One feels here the same-sexer having the last laugh, heartily.
Forster's brand of humanism has fallen from fashion in literary studies, yet it endures in fiction itself. Readers still love this author, even if they come to him by way of the multiplex. The durability of his work is, of course, the greatest raison d'être this book could have. It should have been titled How to Write Novels People Will Still Read in a Hundred Years. --Claire Dederer