Before I began writing myself, I read novels primarily for the story. In fact, I revelled in the tale. Even after dissecting themes for my studies in ‘great’ literature, I still craved a good story.
Later, while studying creative writing, I heard another student declare that she only reads these days to see how the writer does it. I felt similarly. I’m always on the lookout for how an author constructs his or her tale. What techniques do they use? From whose point of view is the novel told?
Author Kurt Vonnegut, for example, chose to turn his real life experiences as a prisoner of war in Dresden into fiction. It took him years to hit upon the hapless but indefatigable character of Billy Pilgrim. Once he had him, Vonnegut was off and running. Fictionalising his own life was his best way of getting to the reality of the everyday, common soldier.
More recently, Martin Amis has published the novel, Inside Story. Female friends of mine were horrified to hear that I liked it. I understand that Amis displays male chauvinism – witness the narrator’s relationship with the enigmatic Phoebe Phelps. I assured them that he builds to a fine crescendo at the death of his dear friend, Christopher Hitchens. I didn’t add that I appreciate the proficiency with which he wields a good pronoun, switching seamlessly from the first person ‘I’ of the narrator – who may or may not double as Amis – to the third person singular – and all in the interests of greater objectivity. Amis even throws in several ‘How to Write’ chapters, just to keep us on our toes.
Novelists may not employ such strategies deliberately, but their inventiveness adds to the craft. For those of us learning the ropes of narrative, these ploys can be instructive. Luckily for writers and readers alike, the art of the contemporary novel is constantly changing. Hence are thankful that the genre is very much alive and well.