THR Web Features   /   January 26, 2023

Introducing Critical Miniatures

First Installment: Thresholds

Richard Hughes Gibson

( THR illustration; Alamy Stock Photo.)

On January 6, 1991, the poet James Fenton published the fiftieth and final installment of “Ars Poetica,” a column in the English newspaper The Independent on Sunday billed as a “masterclass” on poetry. An enterprising editor then hatched a plot for another series on “The Art of Fiction,” and he made a pitch to David Lodge, whose credentials as a scholar and practitioner of fiction made him an ideal columnist. As Lodge reports in the book version of The Art of Fiction, he probably would have turned the invitation down had it arrived a few years earlier. But having recently retired from his academic post, Lodge was just then pondering a professional change. “I found that I had little inclination or incentive,” he explains, “to go on writing criticism for an essentially academic audience; but I felt I still had things to say on the art of fiction and the history of the novel that might be of interest to a more general reading public.” The column was thus an opportunity to try a new format, and Lodge quickly embraced the challenge of writing for “people who prefer their Lit. Crit. in small doses.”

Those small doses, though, required that Lodge make some adjustments. We academics like to quote copiously, of course. It is how we argue. Fenton had been working with lyric poems that could be easily quoted in full. What was Lodge to do with novels hundreds of pages in length? He could share only a smidgeon of any text, which would hardly be representative of an author’s “art,” much less the “art of fiction” broadly. His solution was not to try to do justice to any given work of fiction, at least in its fullness. With less than a thousand words to work with, Lodge could not pretend to explain “the meaning” of anything. The best that he could do was to talk strategy and point to memorable tactics authors had used when composing a title, choosing a perspective (first-, second-, or third-person narrator?), depicting an epiphany, or introducing a character.

He began on May 26, 1991, with the fitting subject of beginnings (illustrated by the first paragraphs of Jane Austen’s Emma and Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier), and wrapped the series up on May 14, 1992, with endings (Northanger Abbey and Lord of the Flies). In between, however, his subjects and sample passages were dictated by whim—another unexpected strength of the format. Consider his choices for weeks two through five: “The Intrusive Author,” “Suspense,” “Teenage Skaz,” and “The Epistolary Novel,” his excerpts for those weeks drawn from George Eliot, J. D. Salinger, E. M. Forster, and others. The book relies heavily on juxtaposition, the more seemingly mismatched its examples (whether announced in the excerpts or developed in the article) the better. Who would think to pair Austen and Lord of the Flies? But it often works marvelously. Odd couples highlight the distinct qualities of each specimen and, taken together, demonstrate that authors enjoy a range of possibilities for handling the business in question.

Juxtaposition thus offers a compact demonstration that there is never one necessary and true way to tackle any task in the house of fiction. Indeed, Lodge insists that the fiction writer has always had options, and, moreover, that the number of options only grows over time as authors fiddle with, or openly defy, their predecessors’ techniques. As Lodge points out, his book “does not attempt to say the definitive word on any of the topics it touches on, but…will, I hope, enhance readers’ understanding and enjoyment of prose fiction, and suggest to them new possibilities of reading—and who knows, even writing—in this most various and rewarding of literary forms.” The brilliance of The Art of Fiction is that it reveals that something that readers do quite naturally—comparing the books we read—can be honed, and that reading in a Lodge-like way, attentive to the author’s technical choices, will enrich our encounters with fiction. Here criticism dwells in possibility.

My only complaint about Lodge’s book is that it came out thirty years ago and was not followed by a sequel. There have been subsequent columns and books on fictional technique for a general readership, but none to my knowledge have extended Lodge’s simple but effective approach of choosing a topic and then seeing what happens when you lay examples side by side. And, in my view, that is a shame, since Lodge would readily admit that his fifty columns did not exhaust the subject of the “art of fiction,” and, moreover, the book reads to me as one long invitation to gather remarkable specimens from one’s own library. The Art of Fiction, in other words, is constantly whispering to the reader, “Go try it yourself.”

Over the next year, that is what I propose to do in monthly installments for THR. Unlike Lodge, I do not intend to quit my day job writing journal articles and university press books for a tiny audience of specialists; peer review has not lost its thrill. But I am sympathetic to the increasingly frequent calls from within academic literary studies to channel our know-how into forms that nonacademic readers might enjoy. More importantly still, I have been assigning a “Lodge It” exercise modeled on chapters from The Art of Fiction for almost a decade, and I am tired of being left with the housework of grading while my students have all the fun. To put it another way, I am undertaking this series, titled “Critical Miniatures,” as an attempt at pleasure criticism—that is to say, a mode of criticism in sync with the beginning and secret engine of my professional life: pleasure reading. If we learn something from this exercise, if something like a “masterclass” emerges, that will be a nice bonus.

I make only two amendments to Lodge’s model. First, Lodge stuck to British and American fiction, for the honorable reason that that is what he knew best. While that is home base for me, too, I intend to wander more freely, since the novel, including the English-language novel, is an indisputably global genre now, and  already was so even three decades back. Second, I will be more attentive to the material form that fictions take—be it a book or app, in a traditional layout or experimental one—in acknowledgement of the fact that both readers and writers have more choices nowadays when it comes to physical format and design. It is, indeed, on a matter of the second type that I begin…

* * *

I’d have liked to give [this book] to you plain and naked, undecorated by any prologue or the endless succession of sonnets, epigrams, and eulogies that are usually put at the beginnings of books. Because I can tell you that, although it was quite an effort to write the book, producing this preface that you’re now reading was far worse. Many times I picked up my pen to write it, and as many times I put it down again because I didn’t know what to say; and once when I was in this quandary, with the paper in front of me, the pen behind my ear, my elbow on the desk and my check in hand, wondering what I could write, a friend of mine burst in, a lively and clever man who, on seeing me so thoughtful, asked me the reason, and I didn’t keep anything from him but said that I was thinking about the prologue that I had to write for the history of Don Quixote, and that it had reduced me to such a state that I didn’t want to write at all, still less publish the exploits of this noble knight.

Prologue, Part 1, Don Quixote (1605) by Miguel de Cervantes

aanchol = The ‘n’ is nasal. An entire cultural complex resides in this part of the sari, the endpiece, which hangs over the shoulder at the back (mostly; it can sometimes hang from the front, depending on the way in which it is worn). Because it can be used to cover the back, arms and shoulder, it is the ‘display area’ of the sari, its peacock tail, as it were, for which the craftsman or mass-manufacturer reserves the showiest of embellishments. Its uses are legion, from wiping tears or drying plates; from typing keys to draping it around the arms and shoulder to feel less exposed; from covering the mouth and/or nose to fanning oneself in the humid heat.

ablush = Ebony.

achchha = Literally ‘well’ (ejaculative, not adjective), ‘okay’, ‘right’ or ‘I see’, the word can denote assent or stand as just a filler.

adda = A Bengali institution. It consists of long sessions of aimless conversation, mostly between men. Bengalis try to give it a high intellectual gloss, believing that it is the soul of life and productive of great breakthroughs in the arts, sciences, politics, etc., but don’t be fooled—it’s classic Bengali idleness, a way of wasting, cumulatively, months and years of one’s life in procrastination and ridiculous self-importance.

Glossary, The Lives of Others (2014) by Neel Mukherjee


“When does a novel begin?” Lodge opens his first column with this question, and I recycle it now in order to address a gap in his account that has been bothering me for years. Rightly, he observes that the question of a novel’s beginning has two sides. For the writer, the beginning of a novel is often impossible to pinpoint, since in almost all cases the first words of Chapter 1 are a late development in a saga that has been going on for months, if not years. “Certainly the creation of a novel rarely begins with the penning or typing of the first words.” We agree.

When Lodge shifts his attention to the audience, however, he finds no comparable complexity or variety. “For the reader,” he argues, “the novel always begins with that opening sentence” (italics mine). There’s an obvious objection to be made here on practical grounds: Some readers don’t begin with page 1. My six-year-old son, for example, distrusts fictional chapter books—too much can go wrong in such long stories—and so frequently begins with the last chapter to make sure that things turn out alright in the end. If not, the book returns to the shelf.

Moreover, as the reader will learn in Chapter 44 of The Art of Fiction, the first words of the first chapter are not the first words after all. The title “is part of the text—the first part of it, in fact, that we encounter—and therefore has considerable power to attract and condition the reader’s attention.” The beginning of a fiction, then, is not such a clear-cut matter for the reader. Perhaps “beginning” should be understood as a verb rather than a noun in this case. That is to say, it should be treated as a process, sometimes idiosyncratic, with multiple stages. The world of fiction offers us numerous avenues. Our encounter with a novel or short story may begin with an attractive title or cover design, the summary on the back, some buzz in the press, a friend’s pleading (“you must read this!”), and/or a nervous examination of the ending.

In my first extract, Miguel de Cervantes further complicates matters by calling attention to the long corridor that lies between the title page and the first chapter of a book. This, too, is part of “beginning” for author and audience alike. Cervantes knows that the reader expects him to fill that space, and to do so with alluring material. But Cervantes is short not only on ideas to fill out a prologue but also friends to supply endorsements (preferably in the form of “sonnets whose authors are dukes, marquises, counts, bishops, ladies or famous poets”). Cervantes is bemoaning the terrain that the late Gérard Genette taught us to call the “paratext” (para = beside), which Genette likened to a threshold or, borrowing an image from Jorge Luis Borges, a vestibule. Fictions, both Cervantes and Genette recognized, are never “naked”; we cannot help but notice their trappings.

The paratext as we know it is the byproduct of the print revolution, since medieval manuscripts, being single copies made for particular patrons, had not required orienting devices like tables of contents or marketing tools like blurbs. Cervantes was writing at the moment when the print paratext had shifted from defining basic conventions (every book needs a title page) to outright competition. John Florio’s 1603 English translation of Montaigne’s Essays, to cite a representative literary example, features a dedicatory epistle to two aristocrats, further verse addresses to said nobles, a note to the reader, and a pseudonymous congratulatory poem to Florio from friend Matthew Gwinne. How could poor old Cervantes compete with that?

The prologue goes on to report that an unnamed, seemingly fabricated friend comes to Cervantes’s rescue. Upon hearing the author’s lament, the friend cheerfully suggests that Cervantes write the sonnets himself, assigning them to imaginary people with impressive titles. You can give them, the friend explains, “whatever names you like.” And that is just what Cervantes does. Immediately following the prologue, the reader discovers a series of poems praising the novel and its characters that are ascribed to characters in the chivalric romances that Don Quixote satirizes, including Orlando Furioso, Amadis of Gaul, and Sir Belianis of Greece. (All of this got Cervantes in trouble with the man to whom he planned to dedicate the book, the Duke of Bejar, who was a lover of romances!)

Lodge argues that “the beginning of a novel is a threshold, separating the real world that we inhabit from the world the novelist has imagined.” This novel (arguably, the first modern novel) is working in the reverse direction. Cervantes is dancing in the threshold, playing with our assumptions about the division between the “real” and fictional portions of a book. One wonders if we can even speak of Don Quixote as having a distinct “paratext” at all. Cervantes claimed the author’s creative license over the entire artifact; he opened up the book, cover to cover, to fiction.

There are numerous books that could be cited as Don Quixote’s successor in this regard. Miguel de Unamuno’s Fog (1914), to cite a direct descendant, begins with a prologue prepared by one of the characters at the author’s request, which is then followed by a “postprologue” by Unamuno himself. Our present moment, though, is notable for its concern for the paratext, thanks to a greater willingness among publishers to experiment with book design and to better equipment for printing unconventional layouts. Maps are now commonplace. Russian novels are not the only ones with family trees. Consider the designer-cum-novelist Zachary Thomas Dodson’s densely ornamented Bats of the Republic: An Illuminated Novel (2015), to note an over-the-top example. Dodson thematizes every aspect of the paratext, beginning with endpapers that feature an M. C. Escher-style bat motif (the book jacket is also reversible). The front matter features a map (of the Republic of Texas) and a page of a handwriting supposedly penned by a character, among many other embellishments. Again, the fiction begins before what we usually refer to as “the text.”

Neel Mukherjee’s 2014 The Lives of Others plants us on the other “threshold” of fiction, the exit in the back. This book has a useful genealogy and map in the front matter, and those elements help to usher the reader into the world of the story, an intergenerational drama set in West Bengal in the nineteen sixties. But I am far more interested in the glossary, the first entries of which appear above, because of the author’s investment in it. Writing a glossary must feel like a burden to most writers (at least, if they are required to make it themselves), especially after all the labor of writing the narrative. And, of course, they must know that given its placement at the back of the book, a glossary is unlikely to be rewarded with careful attention. Some readers surely forget it is there.

But Mukherjee does not treat the glossary as a chore. With the very first entry, the author announces that he will not be adhering strictly to the first commandment of glossary making—Keep It Short. The entry for “aanchol” (also spelled “aanchal”) is an unexpectedly and even generously elegant bit of prose. I am especially taken by the list of the aanchol’s uses in the final sentence—from wiping tears to typing keys to fanning oneself in the humid heat—all of which gesture toward possible narratives and thereby leave me hungering for more. The glossary performs its official commission, to inform; more importantly, it delights. While Mukherjee does not attribute the glossary to a character, the voice of the longer entries harmonizes with that of the novel’s third-person narrator, particularly in worldly wise turns of phrase like that “don’t be fooled” in the entry for “adda.” (See, too, “manimela”: “A bit of a pious and goody-goody kind of outfit with sound intentions.”) The narrative ends pages earlier; but here Mukherjee is still at work constructing his fictional world.

I began with the question of beginnings, but my examples also raise the corresponding question as to when a novel ends. The extracts remind us that the novelist may (be forced to) go on adding material upfront or in the stern after solidifying the first words of Chapter 1 and the last words of the epilogue. Publishers and readers of fiction demand more than a story. The beginning often is not the beginning, and “The End” often is not the end—for writer and reader alike. My examples demonstrate, though, that the practicalities of the threshold spaces can serve as catalysts for creativity. These snippets suggest a useful lesson for this series going forward: In the art of fiction, everything is in play.