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The Practice of Writing
David Lodge
Published by the Penguin Press in 1996
A Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©1998

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Lodge's book would have been better named, The Practice of Re-Publishing Essays, as all the contents of the book are previously published literary essays, most of them written after 1987. This book was a fast read for me, as I was most interested in the essays on writing, such as "Fact and Fiction in the Novel," "Creative Writing," and "The Novel as Communication," and was bored with the essays on writers such as Graham Greene, Nabokov, Joyce, et al. Lodge's essays on writers held no attraction to me, and even though I wanted to like them, I could not. They were academically biased and tendentious to a point that escaped me. But I did unearth a few golden nuggets of insight and wisdom even in those essays:

[page 86, on Kingsley Amis's flawless sense of comedic timing] . . . the way he controls the development of an action, or a sentence, to create that combination of surprise and logicality that is the heart of comedy.

[page 100, Lodge's apostrophe to his readers] If, gentle reader, you don't wish the most private moments of your life to become the object of interested scrutiny by future generations, you would do well not to become a great writer, or have anything to do with one.

[page 137, on James Joyce's prose fragments he called "epiphanies."] By an epiphany he meant a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself.

[page 177, one requirement for a novel] "The only obligation to which in advance one may hold a novel, without incurring the obligation of being arbitrary," said Henry James in his essay, "is that it be interesting."

[page 190, 191, excerpt from Lodge's novel Small World] Reading of course is different from conversation. It is more passive in the sense that we can't interact with a text, we can't affect the development of the text by our own words, since the text's words are already given.

In this last quote, Lodge runs afoul of quantum mechanics. Yes, the words are already set in type and printed in the book, but until read by the reader, their reality is not yet fixed — the words of a book, until read, have the same quasi-reality as Schrödinger's cat in the famous quantum mechanics thought experiment. Until the box is opened and an observer notes the condition of the cat (alive or dead), the cat exists in some intermediate quantum state that is neither dead nor alive. So also does the text of the novel you hold before you as you read the words for the first time. Only after reading, do the words become a given, not before. Until observed, the words and meanings are in as much flux as the cat in the box, and that is the very reason we read the novel in the first place.


Any questions about this review, Contact: Bobby Matherne


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