4 Critical Texts for Writers

Often on social media and websites for writers I see questions asking how a particular narrative technique could or should be used. Sometimes a writer will ask what is a given technique called. Most writers learn their craft intuitively from their own reading and have no need to be familiar with critical terms nor or they concerned about it. They happily write and write well using a variety of narrative techniques as drivers cruise the highways without thinking of the mechanics. A popular question, as example, is how could a writer convey the inner thoughts of a character, as the character’s own thoughts or as told by the narrator and should the two be mixed in the same paragraph.

Some writers are interested in what a particular technique or narrative choice is called, usually in the context of discussing the matter with other writers but sometimes out of curiosity. And there is some confusion of terms as with perspective and point of view so that writers may think they are discussing the same thing but which to the critically aware they may not be.

And there are those in formal education seeking Master of Arts degrees in fiction who need a comprehensive knowledge of narrative art and who need precise terms with which to understand them thoroughly.

Writers can learn much from literary criticism but it is important to remember that these are not rules and are not meant to be prescriptive. Criticism follows writing not the other way around. Literature is not written to criticism but is an open form always providing a place for new forms and evolving structures and narrative techniques. For the working writer, criticism is a means to understand what has gone before, what is currently conventional, and what is useful for developing story telling skills.

The four critical books I have selected have in some combination been used as textbooks for university college courses in creative writing for both undergrad and graduate degrees. That is because they lend themselves to practically, to the mechanics of narrative art and meet the needs of such writers above. They are also groundbreaking works that have had a lasting impact on criticism and the understanding of the methods of narration. And they provide the theoretical basis of their principles and of the principles of narration in general, a study known as narratology.

Writers will be more or less interested in the theoretical concepts of narratology. They will surely be interested in the art of narration. Here are the four critical texts that writers need to mine criticism for the ore of narrative technique.

An Introduction to Narratology, Monika Fludernik

What the publisher says:

An Introduction to Narratology is an accessible, practical guide to narratological theory and terminology and its application to literature.

In this book, Monika Fludernik outlines:

  • the key concepts of style, metaphor and metonymy, and the history of narrative forms
  • narratological approaches to interpretation and the linguistic aspects of texts, including new cognitive developments in the field
  • how students can use narratological theory to work with texts, incorporating detailed practical examples
  • a glossary of useful narrative terms, and suggestions for further reading.

Why writers should read it:

A good overview. Section titles such as “Narrative and plot”, “Time”, Fictional Characters: How Characters Are Introduced”, “The Creative Use of Pronouns in Text”, and “The Authenticity of the Narrative Voice”. Covers a lot of ground.

Though about narratology this book has plenty about narration and is an good overview of narrative art.

The Rhetoric of Fiction, Wayne C. Booth

What the publisher says:

The first edition of The Rhetoric of Fiction transformed the criticism of fiction and soon became a classic in the field. One of the most widely used texts in fiction courses, it is a standard reference point in advanced discussions of how fictional form works, how authors make novels accessible, and how readers recreate texts, and its concepts and terms—such as “the implied author,” “the postulated reader,” and “the unreliable narrator”—have become part of the standard critical lexicon.

Why writers should read it:

A classic. Telling and showing. Types of narration including dramatized and undramatized narrators, scene and summary, variations of distance, reliable and unreliable narration, problems presented by impersonal narration, control of sympathy, clarity and confusion.

Narrative Discourse, Gerard Genette

What the publisher says:

Adopting what is essentially a structuralist approach, the author identifies and names the basic constituents and techniques of narrative and illustrates them by referring to literary works in many languages.

Why writers should read it: Time, duration, and frequency in the novel, mood, voice, narrating through focal characters (Genette invented the term ‘focalization’.) Especially useful for selecting characters through whom the narrator can focalize.

Transparent Minds, Dorrit Cohn

What the publisher says:

This book investigates the entire spectrum of techniques for portraying the mental lives of fictional characters in both the stream-of-consciousness novel and other fiction. Each chapter deals with one main technique, illustrated from a wide range of nineteenth- and twentieth-century fiction by writers.

Why writers should read it:

Far and away the best book on interior monologue or what I call the inner view. Cohn categorizes interior monologue according to precise definitions and explains the differences between psycho-narration, quoted monologue, and narrated monologue. An entire part is dedicated to consciousness in first person monologue.

Conclusion

While literature is not written to criticism, the concepts and terminologies in these critical works is exceptionally handy for working writers. Writers will gain a sense of what good writers who came before found that worked and that did not work and how making one narrative choice effects other narrative choices and the problems thus presented and an array of techniques the writer can adapt to overcome those problems.

Scholarly works are notoriously expensive but these books have been around long enough to make their way into paperback and through enough editions and reprints that they can often be found on the after marked used book sales for a few dollars.

Finally, if you are a writer who wants to know the conventions of fiction and how to use them but have heard conflicting advice or asked and received a too general answer and need more or if you simply want the confidence that you are using tried and true narrative techniques, these are the texts of literary criticism that have the answers you have been seeking.

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