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Aspects of the Novel by E. M. Forster

Aspects of the Novel (1927)

by E. M. Forster

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There is something unerringly endearing about Forster's way of expressing himself that makes this series of lectures on the makeup of the novel so easy to read. His disarming admission of his own unscholarly nature ("True scholarship is incommunicable, true scholars rare. There are a few scholars, actual or potential, in the audience today, but only a few, and there is certainly none on the platform.") puts him firmly on a par with the reader, and his conversational, nay chatty style, opens this little book to anyone who appreciates a good read.

These series of lectures were not an investigation into the history of the novel, nor a prescription of how to write good prose, but an attempt to describe the novel as an art form. Starting from the rather open definition of the novel as "a fiction in prose of a certain extent", Forster tackles a different component each lecture. The story, that satisfies our thirst to find out what happens next, is covered distinctly from the plot, which is the embodiment of our curiosity as to why things happen. He covers a novel's characters, explaining how they can be 'flat' or 'round', and how they differ from real human beings. The realm of 'fantasy', the author's rights in his own universe, are considered, as are matters of pattern, rhythm and viewpoint, with one particularly interesting heading of 'prophecy'.

In terms of whether the book is still relevant, Forster ended his lecture series with some conjecture on what the future may hold for the novel form, whether television would eventually make it even disappear altogether (thank goodness for Riepl's Law). His conjecture that whilst history and society move on, art remains static, is extremely interesting in light of the fact that these lectures were being given at the height of the modernist period, and pertinent works are only lightly touched upon. Furthermore, whilst he provides plenty of written examples, there are of course many references to classic works, which it probably helps to have read, but also references to authors who have been buried by posterity or are no longer so accessible.

On the whole, however, Aspects of the Novel remains fundamentally readable today. It is not a high-brow scholarly affair; rather a well-thought out observational piece, taking a broad look at that vast field of literature we call the 'novel'. Forster makes some extremely astute remarks, and his witty and conversational style bring these across in an easy and comfortable way, that makes you feel his observations are frankly obvious. He does not encompass the full gamut of literary inquiry, but instead picks and chooses to highlight his points and support his argument that there are no fast and steady rules for what defines 'the novel'. This is probably required reading for students of English literature, but it's easy accessibility and thought-provoking titbits should appeal to just about all keen readers with a fascination for the novel form. ( )
2 vote Fips | Oct 30, 2016 |
Feels quite old fashioned now. Two things struck me whilst reading it:
1. This is the 'modernism' that all the post- lot were pushing against. When you hear the first half of the debate, the retort makes more sense.
2. At its worst, it reminds me of that excellent line from Michael Scott in the US Office: "There are four kinds of business: tourism, food service, railroads, and sales. ...And hospitals/manufacturing. And air travel." ( )
  sometimeunderwater | Aug 5, 2016 |
A rather loose, treatise on the novel that explains the difference between a "flat" and a "round" character, for example. Interesting, but rather dry at times. ( )
  dbsovereign | Jan 26, 2016 |
[From Cakes and Ale, Heinemann/Doubleday, 1930, Chapter 16:]

A little while ago I read in the Evening Standard an article by Mr. Evelyn Waugh[1] in the course of which he remarked that to write novels in the first person was a contemptible practice. I wish he had explained why, but he merely threw out the statement with just the same take-it-or-leave-it casualness as Euclid used when he made his celebrated observation about parallel straight lines. I was much concerned and forthwith asked Alroy Kear (who reads everything, even the books he writes prefaces for) to recommend to me some works on the art of fiction. On his advice I read The Craft of Fiction by Mr. Percy Lubbock, from which I learned that the only way to write novels was like Henry James; after that I read Aspects of the Novel by Mr. E. M. Forster, from which I learned that the only way to write novels was like Mr. E. M. Forster; then I read The Structure of the Novel by Mr. Edwin Muir, from which I learned nothing at all. In none of them could I discover anything to the point at issue.

[From Traveller’s Library, Doubleday, Doran & Company, 1933, pp. 7-8:]

Though I do not share many of the prejudices that many people have, I naturally have prejudices of my own, and they will be obvious to anyone who reads this book through. I am a writer and I look at these things from my professional standpoint. This is the difference between the writer and the critic, that the critic, the good one, can look upon productions from the vantage-ground of the absolute and putting himself in the author's shoes can judge of the success of his efforts without the hindrance of predisposition. I do not think that many writers can do this. However good a book may be we can difficultly find merit in it if it is not the sort of thing we do, or think we can do ourselves. Mr E. M. Forster not very long ago wrote a book called Aspects of the Novel. In a novel of mine I ventured on a little gibe at its expense, but Mr Forster is a man of great disinterestedness, generous of soul, and with a delicate sense of humour; I think he forgave me my jest for he was good enough to write and tell me that he liked my book. His, nevertheless, is a good one, interesting not only to the novelist but also to the novel-reader; but I speak of it now to suggest that an. acute reader could certainly divine from it what sort of novels Mr Forster would write. He makes much of just those characteristics in which no one now writing is richer than himself, but holds cheap that element of the novel, the story in which, I venture to think, his own weakness lies. My private opinion is that if Mr Forster, with his gift for beautiful English, his power of creating significant, interesting and living persons, his emotion and humour, his poetic feeling, could or would submit himself to the indignity of devising a good story he would write a novel that would make his eminent talent manifest to the whole world. But my opinion is neither here nor there.

[From Great Modern Reading, Nelson Doubleday, 1943, p. 336:]

E. M. Forster is best known in this country for his novel A Passage to India. It is generally considered the best book that has been written about that unhappy and divided country. He too is a novelist of great gifts who has never won the fame his merits demand. He writes beautiful English, he has wit and humor; and he can create characters that are freshly seen and vividly alive; then he makes them do things that you know very well, so roundly and soundly has he set them before you, they couldn't possibly do. You don't believe, and when you don't believe what a novelist tells you, he's done. E. M. Forster has written two volumes of short stories, but I have preferred to give you here the interesting and timely piece I now invite you to read.[2]

[From The Summing Up, The Literary Guild of America, 1938, lix, 220:]

There are a number of clever writers who, with all sorts of good things in their heads to say and a gift for creating living people, do not know what on earth to do with them when they have created them. They cannot invent a plausible story. Like all writers (and in all writers there is a certain amount of humbug) they make a merit of their limitations and either tell the reader that he can imagine for himself what happens or else berate him for wanting to know. They claim that in life stories are not finished, situations are not rounded off and loose ends are left hanging. This is not always true, for at least death finishes all our stories; but even if it were it would not be a good argument.[3]

[1] Fictional! The three books mentioned later are real. Ed.
[2] “What I Believe”. Ed.
[3] Reference to E. M. Forster? Ed.
1 vote WSMaugham | Jun 26, 2015 |
Must we murder to dissect? Must we explain why some books are better than others? I suppose. Some of his views I respect, but some of his views on Dickens I can barely tolerate. Valuable in highlighting books and authors I haven't read. The world of 'Classic Literature' really is limitless. ( )
  charlie68 | Sep 1, 2014 |
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To Charles Mauron
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This lectureship is connected with the name of William George Clark, a Fellow of Trinity.
The final test of a novel will be our affection for it, as it is the test of our friends."
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0156091801, Paperback)

There are all kinds of books out there purporting to explain that odd phenomenon the novel. Sometimes it's hard to know whom they're are for, exactly. Enthusiastic readers? Fellow academics? Would-be writers? Aspects of the Novel, E.M. Forster's 1927 treatise on the "fictitious prose work over 50,000 words" is, it turns out, for anyone with the faintest interest in how fiction is made. Open at random, and find your attention utterly sandbagged.

Forster's book is not really a book at all; rather, it's a collection of lectures delivered at Cambridge University on subjects as parboiled as "People," "The Plot," and "The Story." It has an unpretentious verbal immediacy thanks to its spoken origin and is written in the key of Aplogetic Mumble: "Those who dislike Dickens have an excellent case. He ought to be bad." Such gentle provocations litter these pages. How can you not read on? Forster's critical writing is so ridiculously plainspoken, so happily commonsensical, that we often forget to be intimidated by the rhetorical landscapes he so ably leads us through. As he himself points out in the introductory note, "Since the novel is itself often colloquial it may possibly withhold some of its secrets from the graver and grander streams of criticism, and may reveal them to backwaters and shallows."

And Forster does paddle into some unlikely eddies here. For instance, he seems none too gung ho about love in the novel: "And lastly, love. I am using this celebrated word in its widest and dullest sense. Let me be very dry and brief about sex in the first place." He really means in the first place. Like the narrator of a '50s hygiene film, Forster continues, dry and brief as anything, "Some years after a human being is born, certain changes occur in it..." One feels here the same-sexer having the last laugh, heartily.

Forster's brand of humanism has fallen from fashion in literary studies, yet it endures in fiction itself. Readers still love this author, even if they come to him by way of the multiplex. The durability of his work is, of course, the greatest raison d'être this book could have. It should have been titled How to Write Novels People Will Still Read in a Hundred Years. --Claire Dederer

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:11:51 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

Full of Forster's renowned wit and perceptiveness. "Aspects of the Novel" offers a rare insight into the art of fiction from one of our greatest novelists. Forster pares down the novel to its essential elements as he sees them: story, people, plot, fantasy, prophecy, pattern and rhythm. He illustrates each aspect with examples from their greatest exponents, not hesitating as he does so to pass controversial judgement on the works of, amongst others, Sir Walter Scott, Charles Dickens and Henry James.… (more)

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