Books for the Well-Read; Narratology


Ask The Paris Review

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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