What kind of knowledge do we hope to derive from reading novels, which tell us stories we know are not “true”? One traditional answer to that question is: knowledge of the human heart, or mind. The novelist has intimate access to the secret thoughts of characters denied to the historian, the biographer or even the psychoanalyst. The novel, therefore, can offer us more or less convincing models of how and why people act as they do.
Not my words but those David Lodge, one of my favourite authors, in his thought-provoking book The Art of Fiction. Organised into fifty short chapters, starting with ‘beginning’, David Lodge uses well-chosen extracts to illustrate almost every aspect of fiction. One of those rare books that you can open at any page and start reading; I guarantee that both readers and writers of fiction will learn something every time.
For example, I just opened it in the section on ‘an unreliable narrator’. David Lodge observes that, "The point of using an unreliable narrator is to reveal in an interesting way the gap between appearance and reality, and to show how human beings distort or conceal the latter." I recently struggled with a historical fiction novel with a very unreliable narrator but now appreciate that it made me really think about the events being described.
The Art of Fiction rounds off with ’endings’ and a nice point from another of my favourite authors, Jane Austen, that a novelist cannot conceal the timing of the end of their story because of the tell-tale compression of the pages. Lodge ends a consideration of the resolution (or deliberate non-resolution) of questions raised in the mind of the reader by the narrative with an observation on the limitations of the English language: “A novel is a Gestalt, a German word for which there is no exact English equivalent, possessing qualities as a whole that cannot be described merely as a sum of its parts.”