Em Forster Essays On Success
Successful novelist E M Forster discusses the craft of story writing.
Aspects of the Novel
E M Forster (1879-1970)
A story is a narrative of events arranged in their time sequence — it simply tells us what happened and in what order. It is the time sequence which turns a random collection of episodes into a story. But chronological sequence is a very primitive feature and it can have only one merit: that of making the audience want to know what happens next. The only skill of a storyteller is their ability to wield the weapon of suspense, making the audience eager to discover the next event in the sequence.
This emphasis on chronological sequence is a difference from real life. Our real lives also unfold through time but have the added feature that some experiences have greater value and meaning than others. Value has no role in a story, which is concerned with the life in time rather than the life by values. And because human lives measured by time consist of nothing more than the business of getting old, a story cannot sincerely lead to any conclusion but the grave.
The basis of a novel is a story — the narration of events in the order they happened — but storytelling alone can never produce a great novel. The simple chronological narrative of War and Peace only manages to achieve some kind of greatness because it has extended over space as well as time, and the sense of space until it terrifies us is exhilarating, and leaves behind it an effect like music. After one has read War and Peace for a bit, great chords begin to sound, and we cannot exactly say what struck them. They come from the immense area of Russia, over which episodes and characters have been scattered, from the sum-total of bridges and frozen rivers, forests, roads, gardens, fields, which accumulate grandeur and sonority after we have passed them.
A novelist can only begin to explore the value of human experiences by developing the characters of the story. But Forster emphasises that characters are not real people; rather they are like real people. Characters’ lives are different from real lives, and common activities such as sleeping and eating occupy little space in novels, whereas love is greatly over-represented. Sometimes characters can seem to be more real than the people around us, and this is because a novelist is able to reveal the character’s hidden life. In daily life we never understand each other, neither complete clairvoyance nor complete confessional exists. But people in a novel can be understood completely by the reader, if the novelist wishes; their inner as well as their outer life can be exposed.We cannot understand each other, except in a rough and ready way; we cannot reveal ourselves, even when we want to; what we call intimacy is only makeshift; perfect knowledge is an illusion. But in the novel we can know people perfectly.
It is this completeness that allows characters to take on the air of being real, and gives us a definition as to when a character in a book is real: it is real when the novelist knows everything about it. He may not tell us all he knows, but he will give us the feeling that though the character has not been explained, it is explicable.
Forster distinguishes between flat characters and round characters. The really flat character can be expressed in one sentence such as ‘I will never desert Mr Micawber.’ There is Mrs Micawber — she says she won’t desert Mr Micawber; she doesn’t, and there she is. These characters are easily recognised when first introduced and easily remembered afterwards, and their memorability appeals to our yearning for permanence. They are best when they are comic. A serious or tragic flat character is apt to be a bore.
Dickens wrote flat characters superbly well. Nearly every one can be summed up in a sentence, and yet there is this wonderful feeling of human depth. Probably the immense vitality of Dickens causes his characters to vibrate a little, so that they borrow his life and appear to lead one of their own. It is a conjuring trick. Part of the genius of Dickens is that he does use types and caricatures, people whom we recognize the instant they re-enter, and yet achieves effects that are not mechanical and a vision of humanity that is not shallow.
A round character by contrast has further dimensions to their personality, which are revealed as events demand them. A flat character never surprises us with their behaviour, but a round character may well surprise us with these unsuspected aspects of their nature; and the test of a round character is whether it is capable of surprising in a convincing way. Even if events never require these characters to extend themselves, they nevertheless have the capacity. All the Jane Austen characters are ready for an extended life, for a life which the scheme of her books seldom requires them to lead, and that is why they lead their actual lives so satisfactorily.
Looking back to a fictional technique common in eighteenth and nineteenth century novels — that of telling different sections of the story through different characters — Forster believes the effect of changing viewpoint is less important than the power of the writer to bounce the reader into accepting what he says and having a proper mixture of characters.
We have defined a story as a narrative of events arranged in their time-sequence. A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality. ‘The king died and then the queen died,’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief,’ is a plot. The time sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it. Consider the death of the queen. If it is in a story we say ‘and then?’ If it is in a plot we ask ‘why?’
A plot demands intelligence and memory on the part of the reader, to remember incidents and create connecting threads between them. This allows the novelist to delay explanations and introduce human mystery to the narrative. Mystery is essential to a plot, and cannot be appreciated without intelligence, part of the mind must be left behind, brooding, while the other part goes marching on.
This relationship between cause and effect also connects the characters with the plot. Incident springs out of character, and having occurred it alters that character. People and events are closely connected. The balance between them is sometimes difficult to achieve though, because characters, to be real, ought to run smoothly, but a plot ought to cause surprise. Sometimes a plot triumphs too completely. The characters have to suspend their natures at every turn, or else are so swept away by the course of Fate that our sense of their reality is weakened.
Fantasy and Prophecy
The general tone of novels is so literal that when the fantastic is introduced it produces a special effect. Fantasy implies the supernatural, but it may do this by no more than simply hinting through a magical quality in events. The stuff of daily life will be tugged and strained in various directions, the earth will be given little tilts mischievous or pensive.
Forster includes parodies and adaptations of earlier works as forms of fantasy which allow another writer’s imagination to take flight. Parody or adaptation have enormous advantages to certain novelists, particularly to those who may have a great deal to say and abundant literary genius, but who do not see the world in terms of individual men and women — who do not, in other words, take easily to creating characters.
Prophecy is an accent in the novelist’s voice. His theme is the universe, or something universal. The characters and events still have a specific meaning within the story, but they also have greater resonances. In Dostoyevsky the characters and situations always stand for more than themselves; infinity attends them.
This is different from symbolism, in which characters and events represent concrete meanings. Rather prophecy is about mysterious, imprecise meanings which connect us with the history of humankind. It is not a veil, it is not an allegory. It is the ordinary world of fiction, but it reaches back.Melville — after the initial roughness of his realism — reaches straight back into the universal, to a blackness and sadness so transcending our own that they are undistinguishable from glory.
Pattern and Rhythm
A novel has a pattern when it has a geometric shape, such as the hour-glass shape of one character’s social fall crossing over with another’s social climb, or the circular shape of a character moving from one new acquaintance to the next until they finally return to their starting point. Pattern is an aesthetic aspect of the novel, and though it may be nourished by anything in the novel — any character, scene, word — it draws most of its nourishment from the plot.Whereas the story appeals to our curiosity and the plot to our intelligence, the pattern appeals to our aesthetic sense, it causes us to see the book as a whole.
But forcing the characters to fit an external pattern, instead of allowing the plot to grow organically, causes a novel to lose the immense richness of material which life provides. To most readers of fiction the sensation from a pattern is not intense enough to justify the sacrifices that made it, and their verdict is ‘Beautifully done, but not worth doing.’
Rhythm on the other hand is like a musical motif which reappears with slight variations and helps to unify the novel. Such a motif has a life of its own, unconnected with the lives of its auditors. It is almost an actor, but not quite, and that ‘not quite’ means that its power has gone towards stitching [the] book together from the inside.
The appearance of a motif is not an artificial pattern, and there are times when it means nothing and is forgotten, and this seems to me the function of rhythm in fiction; not to be there all the time like a pattern, but by its lovely waxing and waning to fill us with surprise and freshness and hope.I doubt that it can be achieved by the writers who plan their books beforehand, it has to depend on a local impulse when the right interval is reached. But the effect can be exquisite, it can be obtained without mutilating the characters, and it lessens our need of an external form.
EM Forster's A Room With A View was my first intimation of the possibilities of fiction: how wholly one might feel for it and through it, how much it could do to you. I felt it was very good and that the reading of it had done me some good. I loved it. I was too young, at 11, to realise serious people don't speak of novels this way. Soon enough, though, I grew up and grew serious; I became intellectually responsive to the text. And as serious young adults, we are thrilled to be able to talk of theme, of the mechanics of plot and the vicissitudes of character. Maybe we continue this interest and take it further, deciding to study novels in earnest, or even teach them, review them, or write them.
A peculiar thing happens at this point. We find that our initial affective responses are no longer of interest to the literary community in which we find ourselves. We are as Heraclitus described us: "Estranged from that which is most familiar." Suddenly this incommensurable "Love", and this other, more vague surmise - that the novel we loved was not simply "good" but even represented a Good in our lives - these ideas grow shameful and, after some time, are forgotten entirely, along with the novel that first inspired them. For no sensation empirical as love can have any importance as a "response" to novels qua novels. Can it?
There is something about love that does not sit well with the literary academy. We are aware that there is an emotive response for which the novel explicitly applies that is not properly requested by an atom or a rock formation or a chemical compound. Sensing the anomalous nature of this emotive quality within the university, we have resolved not to speak of it much. We recall the strategies by which FR Leavis secured the novel's status within the academy, treating the novel with circumspection; as if it were not quite a novel, but rather a piece of social history, or an example of moral philosophy, or a mission statement, or a piece of public policy. It did not matter, really, as long as the novel was seen to be treated rigorously and made relevant. Like Leavis, we are not quite sure that the novel as novel will do. An admission of love, in this context, would only be seen as weakness. And certainly, as an undergraduate, I was suspicious of the subjective affective response. I was suspicious of the Good in all its forms. I suspected the Good as a value that novels might possess; I was as loath to call one novel greater than another as I would be to gauge the relative value of two fossils. I called this canonical bias. I also suspected Good as a concept the novel might interrogate. I called this moralism. And more than anything, I suspected good as an emotional response, that "I love it!" which I had expressed as an 11-year old for A Room With A View . I called this sentimental. I didn't see the relevance of any of these things to my study.
At Cambridge at least, Roland Barthes did not fully convince my generation of readers that the text is a pleasure. We rejected the very idea that novels could either make us feel good or do us good, and along with this bathwater we threw out the baby who wailed that the ethical discussion has any relationship to the literary discussion. Our interest was analytical, not ethical. But I think now that there was, in fact, a sneaky, submerged ethic in our disdain for the novels that made us feel good, which seemed too simple and therefore (we believed) produced too much pleasure. Nietzsche would have considered us pathologically Christian in our literary habits. Oh yes, my generation liked to be in some pain when they read. The harder it was, the more good we believed it was doing us.
The other unconscious consequence of this thinking or un-thinking, was that we believed certain styles symptomatic of certain ethical attitudes. We were far more likely, for example, to suspect EM Forster was trying to teach us a lesson than, say, Don DeLillo or Thomas Pynchon. The conflation of the simple in style with the morally prescriptive in character, and the complex in style with the amoral or anarchic in character seems to me one of the most persistently fallacious beliefs held by English students. The truth is, surely, that every variety of literary style attempts to enact in us a way of seeing, of reading, and this is never less than an ethical strategy: "We have to find meters whose scales are unknown in the world, draw our own schematics, getting feedback, making connections, reducing the error, trying to learn the real function . . . zeroing in on what incalculable plot?"
I had this quote pinned to my door for the five years in which I wrote my two novels. I think I felt it issued a kind of ethical challenge to the composers of narrative, a challenge that I wanted to match as I went about my own writing, an ideal that I would try to be equal to. I wanted to be like Pynchon, to be in pursuit of hidden information; I thought it the novel's responsibility to chase and pin down the ghost in the machine. In short, I was responding to the ethical vision of another writer. As a young writer, I took it as my model until I might find my own.
The quote is from Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow. It is also an accurate description of the narrative procedures of Gravity's Rainbow , its literary architecture. And it is an even more eloquent expression of the kind of ethical attention the style of Gravity's Rainbow applies for from its readers. It engages your feelings for certain characters and situations over others, it compels particular hermeneutic procedure, it asks the reader to "step up to the plate" of its style, to be equal to it. This is all, for the moment, that I mean by an ethical vision. Fiction always applies for that same "fine awareness", which Henry James recognised we must employ in order to fully inhabit our ethical lives; to become, as he put it "richly responsible". Pynchon is no less a moralist, under this definition, than Forster or anyone else.
It is an odd thing that moral philosophers such as Gilbert Ryle and Martha Nussbaum, who discuss ways that fiction enters into the ethical realm, and who are attracted to literature in this dimension, have again and again gravitated not to Forster or Pynchon or Fitzgerald or any of the hundreds of novelists who seem to me to possess this "fine awareness", but to Henry James and Jane Austen. Clearly, in Austen's case, this is partly because she wears her ethics of reading on her sleeve and in her titles; her investigations of sense, sensibility, of pride, of prejudice. Any schoolchild understands that we must utilise these ideas in our reading strategies; that we must overcome prejudice to accept Darcy as our hero, we must employ a degree of sense to take the correct ethical measure of the misleading attractions of a Captain Wickham or a Frank Churchill and so on. All of Austen's positivist protagonists read situations, refine them, strip the irrelevant information from the significant, and proceed accordingly. They are good readers and as such, as James Wood has noted, they encourage good reading from others. This is the great, humane basis of the English comic novel.
It seems odd, then, that Forster - although his work is so heavily influenced by Austen - differs from her on this key point. His protagonists are not good readers or successful moral agents, but chaotic, irrational human beings. Lucy Honeychurch, Maurice Hall, Helen Schlegel - Forster's people wouldn't stand a chance against Austen's protagonists. Forster's folk are famously always in a muddle: they don't know what they want or how to get it. It has been noted before that this might be a deliberate ethical strategy, an expression of the belief that the true motivations of human agents are far from rational in character. Forster wanted his people to be in a muddle; his was a study of the emotional, erratic and unreasonable in human life. But what interests me is that his narrative structure is muddled also; impulsive, meandering, irrational, which seeming faults lead him on to two further problematics: mawkishness and melodrama. A contemporary reviewer worked out that the rate of unexpected fatal incident in The Longest Journey amounts to 45 per cent of the novel's population. These idiosyncrasies have been seen as grave failings of Forster's. When placed beside two more of his heroes, Tolstoy and Flaubert, he does suffer. Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary are as wilful and irrational as any Forster protagonist, after all, and yet the novels they find themselves in are not. Those two women are like exotic butterflies under glass, held still for our examination within a controlled, measured, rational narrative. Why couldn't Forster manage that?
Forster himself was conscious of the connection between his style and his ethics in an interesting way. He felt his infamous muddle had value, and that the more controlled, clear, Austen-like elements of his style were ethically problematic. It was part of the reason A Room With a View took so long to finish, five years, in the middle of which his first published novel, Where Angels Fear To Tread, was begun and completed. He knew A Room With a View was, as he put it in his diary, "clear, bright and well constructed", but this very clarity bothered him. The ease of the read, the vivid characterisation, the satisfactory patterning of the plot - in short, all the things that lend the novel its pleasurable aspect - felt like failures to him. In a letter to his friend RC Trevelyan on June 11, 1907, Forster expresses his concern with the novel, whose long gestation period had yet brought it no other name but Lucy: "I have been looking at the 'Lucy' novel. I don't know. It's bright and merry and I like the story. Yet I wouldn't and couldn't finish it in the same style. I'm rather depressed. The question is akin to morality."
This is rather a cryptic comment, leaving Trevelyan and the rest of us to make the necessary Forsterian connection. We are being asked here to make a conceptual leap, from literary style to morality, to something unspoken in their nature that is shared. The word "akin" is an artful choice here. How might literary style be analogous to morality, similar to morality, a case of morality? We may find our first clue in the "undeveloped heart" that Forster refers to in his letters and diaries and gives to so many of his characters; we can hear in it an antithetical echo of Aristotle's "educated heart". The undeveloped heart is the quality, or lack of qualities, that Forster's novels most frequently depict. Lucy Honeychurch has one, as does Maurice Hall, though they learn to develop them; Charlotte Bartlett's will never develop through neglect and Cecil Vyse's is condemned by ill use. An "undeveloped heart" makes its owner "march to their destiny by catchwords", living not by their own feelings but by the received ideas of others. Lucy Honeychurch, for example, is rigorous in her determination to avoid gaining either sense or sensibility. She would much rather take the second-hand report than discover a truth herself. "Mr Beebe," she asks the vicar, "Old Mr Emerson - is he nice or not nice? I do so want to know." I think this is the same kind of undeveloped heart that Simone de Beauvoir, in The Ethics of Ambiguity , delineated in its many manifestations - the politico, the adventurer, the nihilist - and gathered under one name: the esprit des serieux . All De Beauvoir's serious people have undeveloped hearts. They are like that insistent meddler Harriet Herriton from Where Angels Fear to Tread , so very full of - as Forster has it - "consistency and moral enthusiasm". There is no bigger crime, in the English comic novel, than thinking you are right. The lesson of the comic novel is that our moral enthusiasms make us inflexible, one-dimensional, flat. It is a lesson the comic novelists must internalise as well. They, too, require educated hearts to do their work and avoid caricature; they must understand not only what the brain knows, and what other people know, but also what love knows.
I believe a great number of novels come from this Aristotelian place: they share the same ethical vocabulary. Central to the Aristotelian inquiry into the Good life is the idea that the training and refinement of feeling plays an essential role in our moral understanding. Forster's fiction, following Austen's, does this in exemplary fashion, but it is Forster's fiction that goes further in showing us how very difficult an educated heart is to achieve. It is Forster who shows us how hard it is to will oneself into a meaningful relationship with the world; it is Forster who lends his empathy to those who fail to do so. And it is Forster who, in his empathic efforts, will allow his books to get all bent out of shape - The Longest Journey , an infamous melodrama to some, was the novel the author loved best.
Forsterian characters are in a moral muddle; they don't feel freely; they can't seem to develop. Most comic novelists fear creating one-dimensional characters; Forster bravely made this fear a part of his art. His critical definition of "flat characters" has been often ridiculed, and Forster was never able to say, analytically, quite what it was he meant by it. He only knew that he recognised one when he saw one, so to speak, and he suspected they had their own particular uses within the ethical universe of his novels. And it is these novels that speak eloquently where his criticism did not. The emotive lesson we gain by reading through them is exactly this: that we lose a vital dimension when we embrace the esprit des serieux . We become like Miss Lavish, the too-confident comic novelist of A Room With a View, or Harriet Herriton, the strident guardian of public morals. Like them, we become existentially flat when we grow morally inflexible, consistent.
Forster, like Austen, abhors the vain, the self-important, the mannered, the blind and the foolish. But there are some fascinating differences. What one might call conscientious abstainers appear frequently in both authors: Cecil Vyse, Mr Beebe, Philip Herriton find their matches in many of the paternal figures in Austen, most noticeably Mr Bennet. By conscientious abstainer, a specific philosophic type is meant here: this is the man whose life-reading skills are as good as we might hope them to be, but who chooses only to read, to observe, but not to be involved. They are the novel's flaneurs. They invariably think of themselves as "students of human nature", and they are condemned by both authors as Aristotle properly condemns them, as people inured to the responsibilities of proper human involvement. But the nature of the condemnation is different for each author, and employs two different styles. Austen shows her laissez-faire fathers as irresponsible to their families, playing pointless intellectual games that neglect a practical, social necessity - in most cases, the inheritance or future marriages of their daughters. No attempt is made at their interior life; the pre-Freudian Austen does not care why they are so, only that they are so.
Forster's voyeurs are very much more layered, and are offered a great deal more empathy. The most obvious reason is Forster's own personal interest in them. Several critics have pointed to a sublimated homosexuality here; they are, to a man, unmarried and uninterested, and as such they are estranged from the romantic fictions they inhabit. They are also privately incomed in a world where most people work. They share both these traits with Forster himself. These two matters become symbols to Forster of his own ethical failure as a novelist. His homosexuality, because he could not publicly express it, in life or on the page. His independent financial security, because it made him feel that he could not understand the experience of the great majority of his fellow men. His genius lay in making these failures the basis of his ethics, consistently applying his attention to the idea of solitude, moving from this only to communities of no more than two; he famously championed intimacy over sociality, friendship over country. In his novels, he can never completely condemn his conscientious abstainers - he has a soft spot for them. His empathic instincts and enthusiasm rest always on those exiled from a societal network, a concept Austen only obliquely and tragically refers to in the "fallen" state of unfortunate girls.
Austen was very wise, but she was not quite (as the recently returned tourist from Italy likes to say) simpatica. Her good opinion, once lost, is lost for ever. In contrast, "simpatica" is a significant ethical concept for Forster, and not finding it in his own suburban existence, he traced it in his rather cartoonish idea of other cultures, from the homoerotic fellowship of the ancient Greeks, to the unfettered spirits of Italy, to the multiplicity-in-unity that he found in India, that place where "God Si Love" and the mystic in Forster could roam free. These ideas of human connection, though often mawkish in execution, far outstretched Austen's only acceptable connection, the bond of marriage. Forster recognised this absence of "simpatica", of connection, this crucial failure in his favourite writer. Part of his project was to step into that Austenite gap where tolerance falls short of love. In loosening the bonds of Austenite positivism, Forster widened the net of his empathy to include people so muddled they barely know their own name. More than this, he suggested there might be some ethical advantage in not always pursuing a perfect and unyielding rationality.
This lack of moral enthusiasm finds an echo in every part of the structure; his endings, in particular, are diminuendos, ambivalent trailings off, that seem almost passive. This deliberate withholding of satisfaction that Forster produces has irritated many critics, Katherine Mansfield's account being as damning as any: "EM Forster never gets any further than warming the teapot. He's a rare fine hand at that. Feel this teapot. Is it not beautifully warm? Yes, but there ain't going to be no tea."
But is an ulterior ethics revealed when the kettle does not boil? Forster seems to deliberately defuse some of the narrative ticking bombs that Austen relied on to move her plots forwards, the "secret", for instance. In Austen, a secret such as Darcy's or Wickham's stands in the way of the rational process, it is the unrevealed information, and only by its detonation and removal can Elizabeth Bennet understand the truth of her situation. Forster, too, uses secrets, but when they are exploded, they either make no difference or are deeply misunderstood.
What Forster's muddled style has to tell us is that there are some goods in the world that cannot be purely pursued rationally, we must also feel our way through them. In a chapter of A Room With A View entitled "How Lucy Faced the External Situation Bravely", Forster makes this clear: "It is obvious enough for the reader to conclude, 'She loves young Emerson'. A reader in Lucy's place would not find it obvious. Life is easy to chronicle, but bewildering to practise, and we welcome 'nerves' or any other shibboleth that will cloak our personal desire. She loved Cecil; George made her nervous; will the reader explain to her that the phrases should be reversed?"
The moral philosopher might indeed want to point out Lucy's category error, but the frequent reader of novels knows not to. Forster's ethical procedure is familiar to us from a long tradition of English literary thought, and indeed leads straight back to the poet Forster felt had "seized upon the supreme fact of human nature, the very small amount of good in it, and the supreme importance of that little": John Keats. In Keats' letters, which Forster was reading at the time of composition, we find a model for Lucy Honeychurch's way of being in the world: ". . . and at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in literature and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously - I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason . . ."
What Keats conceived as positive ethical strategy, Forster recasts as a muddle. It is not by knowing more that Lucy comes to understand, but by knowing considerably less. She starts off very certain, and in her certainty she lies to George, she lies to Mr Beebe, to her mother, to her brother Freddy and the servants. She tells all of them that she is certain of her own heart and mind. But it is by a process of growing less "certain", less consistent, less morally enthusiastic, that she moves closer to the good she is barely aware of desiring.
Negative Capability is one of the creakiest concepts in the literary theory closet, but I submit it is time it poked its head through the door again. There is a serious vision here of the truth of human relations; and for Forster and his manydescendants it was complicated and made richer by the Freudian influence. Forster is of the first literary generation to inherit the idea that our very consciousnesses are, at root, faulty and fearful, uncertain and mysterious. Forster ushered in a new era for the English comic novel, one that includes the necessary recognition that the great majority of us are not like an Austen protagonist, would rather not understand ourselves, because it is easier and less dangerous.
The heart has its own knowledge in Forster, and Love is never quite a rational choice, as it was for Austen. Elizabeth Bennet needs to be convinced of Darcy's virtues. Lucy never sees anything rational to convince her of George's, unless back-flipping into a pond can be counted virtuous. Elizabeth Bennet's claim at her epiphanic moment is made to herself. It is: "Until this moment, I never knew myself!" Lucy's claim concerns another person, Mr Emerson. She explains that he "made her see the whole of everything at once". The first is a rationalist's self-awakening. The second is a mystic's awakening to the world.
Sure, there is a lot in Forster that fails, is both cloying and banal: his Pantheism, his fetish for the exotic, his idealisation of music. The mystic will occasionally look the fool. Forster took a risk, opening the comic novel to let in the things it was not designed for; small patches of purple prose were the result. But Forster's innovation remains: he allowed the English comic novel the possibility of a spiritual and bodily life, not simply to exist as an exquisitely worked game of social ethics but as a messy human concoction. He expanded the comic novel's ethical space (while unbalancing its moral certainties) simply by letting more of life in . Austen asks for toleration from her readers. Forster demands something far stickier, more shameful: love.
A few years ago, I agreed to take part in a debate on "Modern British Art" at the ICA. Two famous young artists rounded on me for what they saw as my "aesthetic fascism" (I'd brought up the topic of value judgments in modern art), arguing that there was no possibility that I could find more value in King Lear than the text printed on the back of a cornflake packet. This is an exceedingly stupid version of a very serious aesthetic and ethical debate that has been raging in the humanities for about 40 years. Once I'd have counted myself on the side of the young artists, and now I don't. They say when you become a practitioner you become a sentimentalist - maybe that's what happened. All I know for sure is that I no longer find it impossible to speak of value (not universal value, or even shared value, but value as it concerns this reader), nor to lend my nervous voice to the philosopher Martha Nussbaum's strong Aristotelian claims, mainly, that literature is one of the places (when we read attentively) that we can have truly altruistic instincts, "genuine acknowledgement of the otherness of the other". Ten years ago, the idea that reading fiction might be a valuable ethical activity in its own right was so out of fashion that it took an author of Nussbaum's hard, philosophical bent to broach it without incurring ridicule. Rather bravely, she climbed the disputed mountain of literary theory and planted her philosophical flag firmly in the dirt. Her flag said: "Great novels show us the worth and richness of plural qualitative thinking and engender in their readers a richly qualitative way of seeing."
My flag is rather weak in comparison. It says: "When we read with fine attention, we find ourselves caring about people who are various, muddled, uncertain and not quite like us (and this is good)."
Of course, it is not possible to guarantee that when we read, employing that Jamesian quality of fine awareness, we will a priori become richly responsible. Failure is the risk, and most often, the result. Some narratives ask: how do we live? and then answer this question unambiguously and in full. They are often called "closed texts"; or by more value-concerned critics, "bad books". Fairytales, chick-lit, boy-lit, aspirational lifestyle lit, the Bible - all these are often accused of being the kind of books one can judge by their covers. But what is so fascinating is that these texts are rarely entirely closed. There is always the slippage, the telling remnant of what narrative is for and what it can do. The Book of Job, Bridget Jones's Diary , Little Red Riding Hood, the myth of Odysseus and the sirens: these texts want to be closed, with their ends in their beginnings, but none of them succeed. They are too good. It seems that if you put people on paper and move them through time, you cannot help but talk about ethics, because the ethical realm exists nowhere if not here: in the consequences of human actions as they unfold in time, and the multiple interpretive possibility of those actions. Narrative itself is the performance of that very procedure. This is something we know as readers of novels and readers of our own lives; it is this deep, experiential understanding of the bond between the ethical realm and the narrative act that we find crystallised in that too familiar homily "Two sides to every story", a version of which truism one will find in every culture in the world. This is the good that novels do, and the good that they are.
© Zadie Smith. This article is based on Zadie Smith's 2003 Orange Word Lecture, EM Forster's Ethical Style: Love, Failure and the Good in Fiction, given at the Gielgud Theatre in London on October 22. Zadie Smith, author of White Teeth and The Autograph Man , is currently visiting lecturer at Harvard University.