EM Forster: “And the novelist must bounce us; that is imperative.”

Most people toiling at the pithy end of the creative industries tend to have ambivalent feelings towards the whole issue of rules. Everyone, even the wildest and most anarchic of free-form improvisers, needs rules of thumb. Equally, though, the game is well and truly up when absolutely everything is subject to algorithms, methodologies, templates and checklists.

(Sadly, the sector suffering most in this respect is the magazine publishing business, which had already embraced an enthusiasm for “idiot-proofing” well before it was persuaded, more recently, to succumb to the mindlessness of more pernicious digital methodologies.)

Trouble is, it’s all too easy to bend to the will of those who come armed with rules, especially if they’re zealots or militants. Because what do you have concretely to offer in opposition?

Not even EM Forster can help you.

Oh, hang on… Yes he can. It turns out that he can.

Here, for instance, is Forster talking about that sometime bee in fiction editors’ bonnets: the “rules” pertaining to point of view.

emforsterThe whole intricate question of method resolves itself not into formulae but into the power of the writer to bounce the reader into accepting what he says… Look how Dickens bounces us in Bleak House. Chapter 1 of Bleak House is omniscient. Dickens takes us into the Court of Chancery and rapidly explains all the people there. In Chapter 2 he is partly omniscient. We still use his eyes, but for some unexplained reason they begin to grow weak: he can explain Sir Leicester Dedlock to us, part of Lady Dedlock but not all, and nothing of Mr Tulkinghorn. In Chapter 3 he is even more reprehensible: he goes straight across into the dramatic method and inhabits a young lady, Esther Summerson. “I have a great deal of difficultly in beginning to write my portion of these pages, for I know I am not clever,” pipes up Esther, and continues in this strain with consistency and competence, so long as she is allowed to hold the pen. At any moment the author of her being may snatch it from her, and run about making notes himself, leaving her seated goodness knows where, and employed we do not care how. Logically, Bleak House is all to pieces, but Dickens bounces us, so that we do not mind the shiftings of the viewpoint.

Critics are more apt to object than readers. Zealous for the novel’s eminence, they are a little too apt to look for the problems that shall be peculiar to it, and differentiate it from the drama; they feel it ought to have its own technical troubles before it can be accepted as an independent art; and since the problem of a point of view certainly is peculiar to the novel they have rather overstressed it. I do not myself think it so important as a proper mix of characters – a problem which the dramatist is up against also. And the novelist must bounce us; that is imperative…

A novelist can shift his viewpoint if it comes off [as it comes off in the case of Bleak House]. Indeed this power to expand and contract perception (of which the shifting viewpoint is a symptom), this right to intermittent knowledge – I find it one of the great advantages of the novel-form, and it has a parallel in our perception of life. We are stupider at some times than others; we can enter into people’s minds occasionally but not always, because our own minds get tired; and this intermittence lends in the long run variety and colour to the experiences we receive. A quantity of novelists, English novelists especially, have behaved like this to the people in their books: played fast and loose with them, and I cannot see why they should be censured.


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