Have you read… The Art of Fiction?

Deep Reading, Deep Reading for Writers

Somewhere in The Art of Fiction, David Lodge suggests that the invention of the fax machine may well bring forth a new kind of novel-writing. What that means is that the book is old, and that you won’t find in its pages a section on how TikTok changed reading and writing forever. But apart from that, the book will tell you all you need to know about fiction. For writers, it is a compact treasure chest of things to consider when writing a book; for readers, it is a compact treasure chest of things to consider when reading a book.

The best part is how the book is built: Each chapter begins with an excerpt from a novel that illustrates a certain aspect of writing, such as “Interior Monologue” and “Repetition”, or, a little less obvious, “Staying on the Surface” and “Weather”. If you want to get the most out of these chapters, then do as you’re told by the author and read the excerpts, which range from a few lines to a whole page, first. Unless you are already familiar with a topic you may well get a little confused on your first reading. Hold on, though, and don’t despair. It’s only one page, and after that you can read Lodge’s dissections of the excerpt as well as his contextualizations. As every chapter was originally written for a newspaper, this won’t be longer than three pages.

Once you have heard the pleasant ‘clink’ (some say it’s a ‘cloink’) sound of comprehension in your head, take a break, and then go read the excerpt again. I know this sounds like a use of your time almost too luxurious to consider in public. But if you do it, you will be amazed at what you can now see that you didn’t see before in the excerpt. Each chapter becomes a crash course in the art of reading: First an impatient and ineffective exploration of the unknown, then back to the camp for debrief, a little lecture from the weird old master that makes more or less sense, and then, in the fresh air of the next morning, another visit into the territory that now magically reveals its secrets to you.

Flann O’Brien, chuckling

Deep Reading, Deep Reading for Writers

One of my favorite bits in Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman is when the nameless first-person narrator enters the house of the old man he and his companion have murdered. His aim is to finally fetch the old man’s money-box, which was the original reason for the crime. It is in this part that something very important happens to the narrator. Once you know what it is, you have to admire the brazen artfulness in which the author makes his poor, doomed narrator experience it all. People have heard him chuckle in his grave anytime anyone reads the book, I think.

I’m going to give you just one example: There’s a detail that I can’t believe I’ve missed at least three times. When I finally became aware of it, it was only after I knew what I was looking for and where. It’s one of many hints that suggest the narrator himself may not fully realize what is happening to him, even though he tells the story in his own words:

It’s one of the many details in this chapter that tell you another story beyond the surface, and that I think most readers don’t take seriously on a first reading. And I don’t think you have to, actually. The Third Policeman should be read twice, full stop. I do wonder sometimes if anyone ever figured out what happens here without reading the book at least twice or getting a little help from Wikipedia or the like. (If you did figure it all out on your first reading, please write to us, providing evidence.)

It doesn’t really matter, I guess. Even without this narrative layer, The Third Policeman is as trippy a book as you could wish for, both very silly and very unsettling. So each his or her own trip. I personally know people who read the book twice and who didn’t remember this passage at all.