Novelists on the novel - or, at any rate, good novelists on the novel - often write with a vigour and a commitment to the form that shames more academic approaches. Such practitioners' confessions, as Milan Kundera calls them, may be more partial but they're also more impassioned. They know what it is like, and they know what they want. It is Henry James, of course, who exhibits at the highest level the combination of the practising novelist's experience and the finest critical intelligence, but lesser if still considerable writers, such as E.M. Forster (whose Aspects of the Novel has proved so strangely durable) and Ford Maddox Ford, may have much to offer. Ford's chatty and opinionated The English Novel from the Earliest Days to the Death of Joseph Conrad (1930) contains many sweeping and unscholarly judgments, but its fundamental conviction that 'the art of the novel is so difficult a thing that unless a man's whole energies are given to it he had much better otherwise occupy himself' is a bracing rebuke to the non-authorial reader for whom the proper realisation of the form is hardly a life-and-death concern. Ford's division of English fiction into the serious work of the great masters (among whom, I'm glad to note, he includes Trollope) and the literature of mere escape - what he calls 'nuvvles' - allows him to make sheep-and-goat distinctions which may seem idiosyncratic but which are certainly tonic.
LRB 16 March 1989 | PDF Download