Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

"how novels work" by John Mullan (OUP, 2006)

This book looks at each of the main issues in novels (Character, Plot, etc) drawing mainly on 30 novels that the author wrote about in a newspaper, though his general points are more widely sourced. Here are some points that caught my eye


  • "Until the early nineteenth century, [titles] had often composed a double title, with the second part being given as an alternative to the first" p.12
  • "In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries almost any self-respecting novelist would next provide a preface", p.12
  • "Novelists started using abstract-noun titles at the beginning of the nineteenth century for essentially didactic purposes", p.17

Point of View

  • "the first person, in the long piece, is a form doomed to looseness", Henry James, The Ambassadors, (preface)
  • "a majority of literary novels published in the last couple of decades have been written in the first person", David Lodge, Consciousness and the Novel, Penguin 2002, p.86
  • Orhan Pamuk's "My Name is Red" is told in 20 voices, half of them fabulous
  • "The Moonstone" (Wilkie Collins) has 10 voices
  • le Carre's "The Constant Gardener" starts with one character's viewpoint, then changes in chapter 6/7.
  • Third-person, present-tense is used in Updike's Rabbit novels.
  • "In le Carre's [The Constant Gardener] the past tense is for action, the present tense is for memory", p.74
  • In "free indirect speech ... the narrative adopts the sentiments of the character. It is a technique that was pioneered by Jane Austen" p.76
  • Iain Pears' "The Dream of Scorpio" and Michael Cunningham's "The Hours" has 3 parallel narrative strands, separated by time


  • "It is useless to discuss whether the conduct and character of the girl seems natural or unnatural, probable or improbable, right or wrong. IT IS TRUE", Charles Dickens, "Oliver Twist", 1841, Preface, p.xxviii
  • "Academic critics tend to steer away from the business of characterization, even though it is invariably the ordinary measure of a novelist's achievement", p.79
  • "No novel is anything, for purposes either of comedy or tragedy, unless the reader can sympathise with the characters whose names he finds upon the page", Anthony Trollope


  • "Before the nineteenth century, novelists had little interest in dialect speakers, except to mark them off as comically foolish", p.131
  • "In the nineteenth century it was taken for granted that a novelist should supply descriptions of how dialogue is spoken", p.136

Chapter headings

  • "A very short one, and may appear of no great importance in its place. But it should be read notwithstanding, as a Sequel to the last, and a Key on one that will follow when its time comes" (chapter xxxvi, "Oliver Twist")
  • "Containing little or nothing" (Tom Jones)


  • "Satire does not always like easily within novels. The mockery of vice and folly can thwart the very extension of sympathy to characters that is often the aim of novelists", p.115
  • "[Defoe uses facts that] seem by their apparent inertness of effect, to verify themselves ... as there is nothing at all amusing, we conclude that the author could have no reason to detain us with such particulars but simply because they were true", De Quincey
  • "The writer who invented the historical novel, Sir Walter Scott, also introduced research into fiction", p.208
  • "Underworld" has a recurrent baseball. "The device was popular in the eighteenth century"
  • "[Evelyn Waugh was] perhaps the first literary novelist to exploit [the telephone] on a significant scale to dramatise failures of communication, either deliberate or involuntary, between characters", David Lodge, Consciousness and the Novel, Penguin 2002, p.173
  • "Lord of the Flies" was originally "Strangers from within"
  • "Ekphrasis is more common in poetry than in fiction, perhaps because a poem can formally re-create some of the properties of a work of art", p.263
  • "A simile might promise to let us see something more clearly, but it also diverts us from what is being described", p.272
  • "The idea of a coincidence that is not perceived by the characters whom it affects often intrigues novelists", p.281
  • "In general, paragraphs have become shorter in novels over the last century", p.226

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