Writing manuals and the prophetic voice

I’ve long had an aversion to reading writing manuals. It’s not that I feel I have nothing to learn as a writer (far from it), nor that I believe that writing can’t be taught (it can). But when I stand before the wide and crowded shelves of writing books at a chain store, I always feel a twinge of disgust and guilt, as if I’ve been caught gaping at the site of an accident. There’s something uncomfortably exploitative about most commercial writing manuals: they prey on people’s desperate hopes in much the same fashion as self-help books and get-rich-quick guides, promising to reveal simple, surefire, step-by-step secrets to achieving dreams that in reality require loads of talent, hard work, and luck. What’s being sold is the idea that achieving your dreams can be easy; that knowledge of a few simple rules contained within a writing manual will inevitably lead you to bestsellers and critical acclaim. But of course most people don’t get rich quick, and their grief and loneliness can’t be healed by reading a book by Dr. Phil. It’s the self-conscious manipulation here that leaves me a bit queasy: writers and publishers of writing manuals are too often little better than snake oil salesmen, hawking miracle cures by encouraging people to fully believe in their wildest fantasies.

Aspects of the Novel by E.M. Forster (older cover)

Aspects of the Novel by E.M. Forster (older cover)

So, I tend to avoid setting foot in the writing books aisle altogether. No doubt that’s part of why it’s taken me so long to get around to reading E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel—not because I have anything against Forster or the idea of this book in particular, but instead because I have a hard time bringing myself to read books on writing in general. But Forster’s book—taken from a series of lectures he delivered at Trinity College, Cambridge, and published in 1927— is far from a commercial writing manual in any case (though the edition I bought is certainly packaged as if that’s exactly what it is). Forster doesn’t offer writing advice per se; instead, he sets out to describe the novel and explain its function. This is a work of criticism, but it’s instructive for critics and writers both; I think it fully deserves its famous reputation, as well as its perennial place on writing workshop syllabi. I really should have picked it up sooner.

Several of the ideas in Forster’s book have become such commonplaces of fiction scholarship that they’re likely to be familiar to anyone who’s taken a college-level English class. I couldn’t count the number of times I’ve read about or heard a lecture on the concept of round and flat characters—though much of the complexity of Forster’s original idea seems to have been lost in the retelling. Typical writing advice identifies round characters as “good,” and denigrates flat characters as being underdeveloped or insufficiently realistic. But this isn’t Forster’s point; instead, he argues that both types of characters have their uses, and further that a book that attempts to balance too many three-dimensional characters is bound to collapse under their excessive weight.

But Forster’s greatest strength here isn’t in creating neat, insightful distinctions (round vs. flat; story vs. plot; etc.), but rather in his ability to articulate what it is he finds most powerful and compelling in a novel. In a chapter entitled “Prophecy,” Forster takes a close look at Dostoevsky and Melville (among others) in order to get at the feeling created in a reader by the experience of reading a great novel:

Dostoevsky’s characters ask us to share something deeper about their experiences. They convey to us a sensation that is partly physical–the sensation of sinking into a translucent globe and seeing our experience floating far above us on its surface, tiny, remote, yet ours.

For Forster, “prophetic” novelists like Dostoevsky can serve as a kind of transcendent conduit: they have the power to transport us to higher levels of consciousness, while also keeping close to recognizably human experience. Prophetic novels convey “the sensation of a song or a sound,” Forster writes, even as they might also “be patiently accurate about a trial or the appearance of a staircase.” The prophetic writer’s “song” is effective in part because it has the shock of being odd and new; but its success depends on the ways in which it “combine[s] with the furniture of common sense.” Prophetic writers take the real and infuse it with art and emotion that reach beyond the merely realistic.

Reading this kind of work can be a rough business: “While they pass under our eyes they are full of dents and grooves and lumps and spikes which draw from us little cries of approval and disapproval.” A prophetic novel can never be overly neat; it needs to be infused with both the uneven texture of the real world and the madness of a prophet. Such a novel can only be approached with “humility,” Forster suggests; we have to open ourselves up to writers like Dostoevsky, Melville, and Lawrence, and let them transport us where they will.

Here Forster has articulated exactly the kind of experience that I most want out of art—and I suppose it’s the kind of experience I’d like to create through writing fiction, too. So, if I’ve taken any writing advice from Aspects of the Novel, I suppose it’s that I just need to write like Dostoevsky. That sounds simple enough—no doubt the secret is to break it down into a few simple steps….

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