The Art of the Novel (edited by Nicholas Royle)


I had a hard time deciding which should be my last post of the year. Finally, I chose to write about The Art of the Novel, a book I devoured and will return to very often. It may sound like The Art of the Novel is only for writers but that’s not the case. Readers, writers, and teachers of creative writing will find it equally inspiring and useful.

Editor Nicholas Royle has asked eighteen writers to write an essay about an aspect of the novel or a theme related to novels. Additionally they were to share one of their favourite writing exercises, a list of top tips, and a list of novels. Some of these book lists reflect the topic the authors have written about, but more often, they are just a list of the writer’s favourite novels.

Every one of these nineteen articles (Royle wrote one too) was interesting. Sometimes the authors used other writer’s novels to talk about a topic, sometimes they used a book they had written to show the reader how they achieved something. The topics are wide-ranging: Magical Realism, Narrative Perspective, Motivation, Historical Novels, so-called “Dos and Don’ts”, Place, Plot Twists . . . I can’t think of an aspect that hasn’t been covered. Unless you write/read exclusively in a specific genre, you’ll find something of interest in this book.

These are some of the authors who have contributed: Jenn Ashworth, Stella Duffy, Alison Moore, Nikesh Shukla, Kerry Hudson, Joe Stretch, Toby Litt, Alice Thompson and many more.

To give you an idea of what to expect, I’m picking one essay, Kerry Hudson’s “Details, Details”.

At first, Kerry Hudson asks the reader to imagine a man and a woman having dinner and arguing about something. Eventually, they come to a conclusion and smile at each other. Obviously, this isn’t much of a scene, so paragraph by paragraph, she fleshes it out and shows the reader what can be gained by adding details. She then goes one step further and asks the reader to describe the present moment. Where is he/she reading? What does the environment look, smell, sound like?

The essay is followed by a “proper” writing exercise. She asks the reader to leave the house and sit somewhere outside, taking notes of as many details as he/she possibly can. Afterwards, writers should then weave these descriptions into an existing draft and make connections.

As I mentioned before, every exercise is followed by top tips. In this case they are as follows:

  • Get your arse on the seat; writers write.
  • Write your shitty first draft solely for yourself. Edit and revise for your readers.
  • Be kind. Work hard. Don’t be an arsehole.

The last element of the article is her list of favourite/recommended novels.

Hudson’s essay is a bit different as it focuses heavily on exercises. Other’s like Livi Michael’s “Approaches to the Historical Novel” focus on other writer’s work and on showing different ways to write historical novels. Alison Moore’s “Living in a Real World” draws heavily from her prize-winning novel The Lighthouse.

What I enjoyed a great deal was how different all of these authors sounded. Their voices, tones, approaches are so varied that it never gets boring. Reading this, you have a feeling of listening to many, very different, people telling you something about books.

The exercises and top tips are as varied as the voices, which makes them very useful for all sorts of writers, whether they are beginners or more advanced, more interested in genre or drawn to literary fiction.

Since there are nineteen writers in this book, and they all recommend ten to fifteen books, you get a huge list of recommendations. Quite a few books and novelists are mentioned by several authors, but none as often as Muriel Spark’s The Driver’s Seat.

Whether you are a writer or a reader, I highly recommend this book. It will give you food for thought, inspiring exercises, tips and many (themed) book recommendations.


26 thoughts on “The Art of the Novel (edited by Nicholas Royle)

  1. Pingback: The Art of the Novel (edited by Nicholas Royle) — Beauty is a Sleeping Cat | Arrowhead Freelance and Publishing

  2. Great commentary as always Caroline.

    I have not read a lot about the writing process. Perhaps I should do so as this sounds very good.

    I like the fact that this is a collection of thoughts from multiple writers. The variety of views that you describe makes me think about just how diverse is the output of writers.

    Have a happy New Years!

    • Thank you, Brian. I think you’d like it. It makes you see novels in another light and gives you an easy access to the thoughts that go into the creation of books. Plus the exercises and list are wonderful.
      I wish you a Happy New Year too!

  3. Looks like a wonderful book, Caroline! Great review! The exercises after each essay sound wonderful! And the book recommendations – I always love them! I will look for this book. Thank you!

    • Thanks, Vishy. It’s a wonderful book and offers so much. I love book lists. There were quite a few titles I wasn’t familiar with and some I’ve had in my piles fir ages. Some of the exercises are very interesting. I hope you’ll enjoy it. Let he know. It’s a bit dangerous though. It makes you want to get all the books you don’t already own. 🙂

  4. Pingback: The Art of the Novel (edited by Nicholas Royle) — Beauty is a Sleeping Cat | Wanda D. Jefferson

  5. Hi, Caroline. Happy New Year! I appreciate your post and also the reference to a new book. I do have my reservations, though, and they are the same as when I ran across a novel by Julian Barnes (“The Sense of an Ending”) with the exact same title of a much more famous work by Frank Kermode from the middle of the 20th century: why couldn’t the writer (or editor, in the case of the book you describe) come up with another untaken title? Were all the good titles gone? It’s confusing because people who don’t know will do library searches and come up possibly with the wrong writer. In that previous case, it turned out that the novel was a sort of test case for the earlier theory, so Barnes had at least emulation of a theory on his side. But I wonder, does the editor in your case mention or make anything of the Henry James work, the famous one known as “The Art of the Novel,” or not? I may be a stick-in-the-mud, but it always makes me feel uneasy when two different books have the same title. I myself had written a novel (which luckily had a subtitle distinguishing it from an earlier work), when I suddenly found out via the Internet that there was an earlier British tv show I’d never seen that had partial resemblance to the title–you can imagine, with my sensitivity to the subject, how that made me feel!

    • Happy New Year, Victoria. I think the allusion to Henry James’ book is implied. I agree that it is often unfortunate to choose a title that has been taken but it made so much sense here. I think it’s different when it comes to novels. I find it astonishing how many books have the same or a similar title. I understand how you felt when you discovered it in your case. Bad luck. But since it was a TV show it’s not as terrible and you didn’t know. It really didn’t bother me here.

  6. This sounds fantastic, and I agree that it could be for just about anyone. I find the process of writing fascinating, although I doubt I’ll ever write.

    • I thought it was very good. You don’t need to be a writer to be intersted in technique or the writing process. At least, that’s what I think. I don’t paint but I still love to read about painting techniques.
      You never know. One day you might feel like writing a story.

    • Thanks for the recommendation, Resh Susan. I’ll look it up. What I really like here is that it’s more than one person writing.
      But I’m always interested in books on writing.

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