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Books for the Well-Read; Narratology

September 24, 2010 | by

My ex-boyfriend’s birthday is fast approaching. He’s not just any ex—he’s The Ex, the one responsible for approximately ninety percent of my current taste in books, film, and music. We’re still friends, and I want to buy him a book, but I’m stuck. What do you buy for the man who's read everything, and introduced you to all the authors you love? —Joelle D.

Come with a backup. My friend Jennifer and I tend to like the same books, but she has read much, much more than I have. So a few years ago, when I gave her Henry Green’s novel Loving, I kept stashed away (already wrapped up) J. R. Ackerley’s memoir My Father and Myself. She'd read both, as it turned out ... but claimed that she had been “meaning to reread Ackerley for years.” It was such a nice lie. I hope your ex would say the same were he in her shoes. He sounds lucky to have you!

I’m seeking advice for books more on the technical side. I recently read Elif Batuman’s wonderful piece in the London Review of Books on Mark McGurl’s The Program Era. As a writer, I was intrigued by her discussion of narratology—a word, I must admit, I didn’t even know existed. What are some good books on the subject that would be useful for someone seeking to write and study the craft of writing? Preferably one that will not bore me to tears. I often struggle with narrative and voice, and I think some insight would be helpful. I just picked up a copy of Calvino’s Uses of Literature. —Stu

I’m afraid readers of the Daily already know my high opinion of James Wood’s How Fiction Works. But really, that’s the book you want. It provides a good first brush with narratology (the study of narrative structure). You will find the bibliography helpful, too. Unlike most narratologists, Wood has the aspiring writer in mind. And he is never boring!

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  1. Dallas | September 26, 2010 at 10:44 am

    Buying him a fine or first edition of a book he loves would probably go over well.

  2. Laura Miller | October 15, 2010 at 11:50 am

    With all due respect, Lorin, there’s exactly nothing about narrative structure, especially of the kind theorized in narratology, in “How Fiction Works.” Try “Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative” by Mieke Bal. The third edition came out last year. I’ve got the second and it’s a little bit date in its attitudes, but hopefully that’s been corrected in the new one.

  3. Lorin Stein | October 15, 2010 at 12:06 pm

    Isn’t there?! How mortifying. I think there may once have been, in an early draft of the book (or that JW’s editor may have confused his own background research with the book itself).

    Thank you for the correction–and for the suggestion!

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