Novel People – Faulks on Fiction

Faulks on Fiction (Sebastian Faulks) is the kind of book you are so unwilling to stop reading that you read every last word – and discover that he would have preferred the title Novel People. 

This is a book about the people who inhabit fiction and it has walked straight into my personal favourites’ list for two main and several minor reasons. First, he uses, with delicious freedom, exactly the right word for what he wants to say. This is non-fiction, so Faulks is not constrained by his potential reading public or his characters’ vocabularies (or even an ageing brain) in his choice of words. He does not use obscure words, simply the right ones. The writing is also entertaining and fully accessible to the layman.

Secondly, as a reader and writer, to have all these characters from classic fiction (some of which I have read and others not) opened up for me to investigate both as people and as examples of their roles (e.g. hero, villain) in the stories they inhabit, is pure joy. This provides an extra dimension for a re-reading or a first reading of such books and an invaluable lesson in anatomy for a struggling writer.

The sections and chapters can be read separately and if you loathe Amis or love Austen (or vice versa) you can dip in and out. I find it very satisfying that he distances himself so convincingly from the ‘fiction is autobiography’ school. He has chosen a good eclectic mix of characters over the whole life of the English novel and he scans wider horizons each time he selects one.

Do I have any quibbles? My feminist side might have asked for a few more female writers. This book is a trawl through significant writers of the last two centuries. It will I hope become a school text. Many female writers are mentioned, but far fewer women than men make the cut and that saddens me. So Woolf, Zadie Smith, George Eliot and Mary Renault are mentioned, but Byatt, Murdoch and Drabble, for instance, don’t get a look in. These are not writers for whom I carry a flag and Faulks is very clear about the reasons for his selections. Also many great male writers are missing too. Still I am sad.

I will re-read this book over and over again. I will keep it among my dictionaries and style-guides for reference as a writer. I think it speaks usefully to writers of every level. As a reader, I will pick my way through the books it unwraps and that I have not yet read. As you can see I am struggling to put down.