How Novels Work

How Novels Work

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Never has contemporary fiction been more widely discussed and passionately analysed; recent years have seen a huge growth in the number of reading groups and in the interest of a non-academic readership in the discussion of how novels work. Drawing on his weekly Guardian column, 'Elements of Fiction', John Mullan examines novels mostly of the last ten years, many of which have become firm favourites with reading groups. He reveals the rich resources of novelistic technique, setting recent fiction alongside classics of the past. Nick Hornby's adoption of a female narrator is compared to Daniel Defoe's; Ian McEwan's use of weather is set against Austen's and Hardy's; Carole Shield's chapter divisions are likened to Fanny Burney's. Each section shows how some basic element of fiction is used. Some topics (like plot, dialogue, or location) will appear familiar to most novel readers; others (metanarrative, prolepsis, amplification) will open readers' eyes to new ways of understanding and appreciating the writer's craft. How Novels Work explains how the pleasures of novel reading often come from the formal ingenuity of the novelist. It is an entertaining and stimulating exploration of that ingenuity. Addressed to anyone who is interested in the close reading of fiction, it makes visible techniques and effects we are often only half-aware of as we read. It shows that literary criticism is something that all fiction enthusiasts can do. Contemporary novels discussed include: Monica Ali's Brick Lane; Martin Amis's Money; Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin; A.S. Byatt's Possession; Jonathan Coe's The Rotters' Club; J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace; Michael Cunningham's The Hours; Don DeLillo's Underworld; Michel Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White; Ian Fleming's From Russia with Love; Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections; Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time; Patricia Highsmith's Ripley under Ground; Alan Hollinghurst's The Spell; Nick Hornby's How to Be Good; Ian McEwan's Atonement; John le Carre's The Constant Gardener; Andrea Levy's Small Island; David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas; Andrew O'Hagan's Personality; Orhan Pamuk's My Name Is Red; Ann Patchett's Bel Canto; Ruth Rendell's Adam and Eve and Pinch Me; Philip Roth's The Human Stain; Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything Is Illuminated; Carol Shields's Unless; Zadie Smith's White Teeth; Muriel Spark's Aiding and Abetting; Graham Swift's Last Orders; Donna Tartt's The Secret History; William Trevor's The Hill Bachelors; and Richard Yates's Revolutionary Road

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Product details

  • Hardback | 358 pages
  • 142 x 216 x 26mm | 439.99g
  • Oxford University Press
  • Oxford, United Kingdom
  • English
  • black & white illustrations
  • 0199281777
  • 9780199281770
  • 460,347

About John Mullan

John Mullan is Professor of English at University College London. He is the author of Sentiment and Sociability: The Language of Feeling in the Eighteenth Century (OUP) and co-editor of Eighteenth-Century Popular Culture: An Anthology (OUP). He has edited several works by Daniel Defoe and has written widely on eighteenth-century fiction. A broadcaster and journalist as well as an academic, he writes a weekly column on contemporary fiction for the Guardian.

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Review quote

Expanding on his popular Guardian column, and focusing on a set of key novels, How Novels Work [mullan] aims to explain to the interested 'non-academic' reader critical approaches, particularly 'matters of form', which are normally considered the perserve of academia...the text is rich in critical and literary-historical insights...critical readings which...[are], above all, communicated in plain English. Beth Lynch, TLS Ever insightful critiques...wholly satisfying, and a great education for book-lovers and would-be novelists alike... Mullan is willing to go where other academics do not usually deign to tread. Susan Elderkin, The Financial Times A wealth of sharp mini-essays. The Guardian (Review)

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Table of contents

Introduction ; 1. Beginning ; 2. Narrating ; 3. People ; 4. Genre ; 5. Voices ; 6. Structure ; 7. Detail ; 8. Style ; 9. Devices ; 10. Literariness ; 11. Ending

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Customer reviews

The astonishing popularity of reading groups, and their recent rise as staple social event for the book-reading middle classes, has meant that publishers are falling over themselves to direct their wares towards them. Additional, meta-textual information (like author interviews, plot syposes and/or sample questions to get one thinking about the text in new ways) is now regularly appended to novels and books to help book-clubbers gain the werewithal to fully participate in the informed literary gossiping of their gatherings. John Mullan's popular <em>Elements of Fiction</em> column in the Guardian newspaper, where each week he looks at the building blocks of a modern, popular novel, is further proof that analysis and close-reading is a skill many voracious readers want to learn. In <a href="">How Novels Work</a>, a book resolutely aimed at the reading group market, but which deserves wider readership still, Mullan has reorganised and embellished the material from his newspaper column and set out wonderfully concise explanations of beginnings and endings, genre and style, narration and structure, and the like. He also does a good job untangling other devices such as metanarrative, prolepsis and amplification. Whilst one might argue with Mullan's reduction of the novel to the elements he describes -- novels are capacious beasts and being neat about them is always dangerous -- and with the modern canon with which he mostly concerns himself, to do so would be to be quite grudgingly pedantic. Despite occasional unevenness, <a href="">How Novels Work</a> is a great introduction to, well, how novels work!show more
by Mark Thwaite