The Practice of Writing

David Lodge, The Practice of Writing – Vintage Books, London 2011

Read from: July 15th to august 11th 2014

My rating: 3/5 stars


Whether we talk about a novel, a biography or a study of literary criticism, there is something about David Lodge’s “écriture” that appeals to any reader. He was blessed with it, that “something” that could never be taught by a literature teacher, because, as the author himself said, while answering the very question of ability to teach creative writing, it is not just a matter of technique. “It is like a chemical, or alchemical, reaction between form and content.”

Therefore, if you expect to learn tricks and magic receipts in order to improve your style, forget it, for the title is somehow deceiving. The book speaks about the author’s personal experiences – as a critic, a novelist, a playwright and a scriptwriter. Divided in two parts, The Practice of Writing reveals, as was rightly observed in KirKus’ review, the better side of two worlds: academic and journalistic.

Part one, mainly academic, gathers conferences and studies concerning general or specific literary subjects. Some ideas I noted:

  • The classification of contemporary novel in four types: realist (in the traditional sense), fabulative (in the magic-realism descent), non-fictional and metafictional, nevertheless keeping in mind that most authors combine them, in what David Lodge genially calls “an aesthetic supermarket”:

The astonishing variety of styles on offer today, as in an aesthetic supermarket, includes traditional as well as innovative styles, minimalism as well as excess, nostalgia as well as prophecy. (The Novelist today: Still at Crossroads?)

  •  The tremendous originality of Kingsley Amis’s style, that makes Lucky Jim, the first British campus novel, a turning point in the evolution of English literature:

It is a style continually challenged and qualified by its own honesty, full of unexpected reversals and underminings of stock phrases and stock responses, bringing a bracing freshness to the satirical observation of everyday  life. (Lucky Jim Revisited)

  •  the three most impressive traits of Joyce’s prose, which are the power of language to imitate reality, the use of heroic deeds as models for modern, ordinary life and the mixture of styles to describe the world. Very interesting also the observation that Joyce is a novelist only in Bakhtin’s definition of the novel: as a type of discourse (the dialogism or the polyphony interweaving a variety of voices and styles) and a frame of mind (the carnivalesque, questioning and subverting ideological systems by the power of laughter and the celebration of the body) (Joyce’s Choices)
  • finally, the classification of Nabokov’s novels in two types: a) experiments with crime novels (either the classic whodunit or the thriller) by focusing on the criminal instead of the “good” characters (Lolita); by portraying the criminal as an incompetent (King Queen Knave); by making the criminal completely innocent (Invitation to a Beheading; Transparent Things); making the criminal also the detective (The Eye) or refusing to apportion punishment justly (Laughter in the Dark); by making the hero a loser in his fight with evil (Bend Sinister); b) pseudo-memoir or pseudo biographical novels (Glory, The Defence, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, Ada). One of the most impressive features of Nabokov’s fiction is the creation of the unreliable narrator, that reach perfection with Kinbote:

What is so fascinating and devilishly clever about Pale Fire is the way in which the reader is led to see that Kinbote’s notes are not what they purport to be, and to construct the truth from Kinbote’s distorted versions of events. (What Kind of Fiction Did Nabokov Write? A Practitioner’s View)

The second part, after an introductory chapter establishing the differences between novel, stage play and screenplay considering three criteria – point of view, time (with Genette subdivisions of chronology, duration and frequency) and text structure, shares his media experiences in adapting either his own works (Nice Work for television and The Writing Game for stage) or works of the classics (Dickens’s Martin Chuzzlewit). One memorable amusing quote from this second part I happily use as a conclusion of another satisfactory David Lodge reading, who, I’m completely sure now, will never ever bore me:

Taking their cue from Derrida’s assertion that ‘language bears within itself the necessity of its own critique’, deconstructionist literary critics, especially at Yale, have demonstrated, to their own satisfaction and in the teeth of traditional scholarship, that any text inevitably undermines its own claim to have a determinate meaning. Since this procedure opens up the text to endless multiple interpretations, its appeal to literary critics is perhaps obvious. (Through the No Entry Sign: Deconstruction and Architecture)

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