Week five: Watch the bird, not its shadow

It is week five of 2019. How is the writing going for you this week? Here at the garret, I’ve just shelved a piece of business-related writing I had been trying to check off my to-do list because I could not find a voice for it that felt both professional and authentic. I’m going to let it sulk in its Google folder for a few days while I turn to this newsletter, where I’m beginning to feel at home. 

If you were an English major, you may have encountered E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel in college. Perhaps, like me, you read the “People (continued)” chapter, ruthlessly severed from its antecedent and bound into a photocopied course reader, and learned Forster’s distinction between “flat” and “round” characters. (Refresher: if a character changes, or is capable of change, it is round. If not, it is flat.) You might have also encountered Forster’s distinction between story and plot. Both are “a narrative of events,” he tells us, but a story focuses on sequence (the what next), while a plot focuses on causality (the why). “‘The king died and then the queen died’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief’ is a plot. The time-sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it.” 

Through most of this slim volume, Forster sticks to definitions. He wants to tell us what a novel is rather than how to write one. If we consider his original audience, that makes sense. The book collects Forster’s series of lectures given at Trinity College, Cambridge in 1927. To us, English literature seems like one of the pillars of academia, but to Forster and his audience, it was very new – Cambridge did not establish an English department until 1919. Forster’s immediate listeners were primarily academics, not practitioners. So if you want to know more about how to create round characters or transform a story into a plot, I’d direct you back to Lisa Cron’s Wired for Story because you are not going to find instruction in Aspects of the Novel.

Forster himself would have, I think, agreed with Cron’s advice about how to create living, breathing, rounded characters. And this, to Forster, is the real value of the novel as a form: “We cannot understand each other, except in a rough and ready way; we cannot reveal ourselves even when we want to; what we call intimacy is only a makeshift; perfect knowledge is an illusion. But in the novel we can know people perfectly, and, apart from the general pleasure of reading, we can find here a compensation for their dimness in life.”

We get hints, however, that Forster’s characters are so real to him that he finds it difficult to control them: “The characters arrive when evoked, but full of the spirit of mutiny. For they have these numerous parallels with people like ourselves, they try to live their own lives and are consequently often engaged in treason against the main scheme of the book. They ‘run away,’ they ‘get out of hand’: they are creations inside a creation, and often inharmonious towards it; if they are given complete freedom they kick the book to pieces, and if they are kept too sternly in check, they revenge themselves by dying, and destroy it by intestinal decay.”

If he is pessimistic on the subject of character, Forster approaches existential despair on the subject of plot: “After all, why has a novel to be planned? Cannot it grow? Why need it close, as a play closes? Cannot it open out? Instead of standing above his work and controlling it, cannot the novelist throw himself into it and be carried along to some goal that he does not foresee? The plot is exciting and may be beautiful, yet is it not a fetish, borrowed from the drama, from the spatial limitations of the stage? Cannot fiction devise a framework that is not so logical yet more suitable to its genius?” Hoping to find that alternative framework, Forster examines André Gide’s Les Faux Monnayeurs but finds it to be only “various bundles of words.”

By 1927, when he gave these lectures, Forster had published five novels, including A Room with a View (1908), Howards End (1910), and A Passage to India (1924). He died in 1970 without ever having completed another. Did he sense in 1927 that this would be the case? I think he might have. I can almost picture him, surveying the collection of perfectly round characters he has created, unable to let them run loose but unwilling to draw the noose of plot around their necks.

Depressing to contemplate? Yes, if, like me, you wish Forster had managed to write his way out of that conundrum. But for yourself as a writer, I don’t think it needs to be. Here’s Forster himself, near the end of Aspects of Fiction, to tell you why:

Perhaps our subject, namely the books we have read, has stolen away from us while we theorize, like a shadow from an ascending bird. The bird is all right—it climbs, it is consistent and eminent. The shadow is all right—it has flickered across roads and gardens. But the two things resemble one another less and less, they do not touch as they did when the bird rested its toes on the ground. Criticism, especially a critical course, is so misleading. However lofty its intentions and sound its method, its subject slides away from beneath it, imperceptibly away, and lecturer and audience may awake with a start to find that they are carrying on in a distinguished and intelligent manner, but in regions which have nothing to do with anything they have read.

Maybe read a novel instead, Forster is telling his audience. Follow the book that is the bird and not the shadow book that is the criticism. 

Remember this as we continue to examine theories about what, how, and why to write a novel. These theories and practices may help you – I hope that they will. But if you get overwhelmed or stuck, pick up a novel and take a look at the bird for yourself.

Here’s to following the bird, y’all,

PS: Have a favorite book about writing you'd like to see discussed here? Hit reply and tell me about it!

Next week: Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear