Hitting, Not Aiming

I told one of my classes the other day that I’ve been reading E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, but that I did not recommend it, as it has the somewhat musty air of being exactly what it is, which is a transcript of a series of lectures the novelist gave at Cambridge in the late twenties. I originally said that, though, after reading the chapter on plot without having read what preceded it. Now, starting at the beginning like I should have in the first place, I’ve completely changed my mind; now I think that if you can hear that voice—the voice of the speaker at the lectern—the book is hilarious and smart, a sequence of ideas that don’t always survive out of context, although I hope that this one does:

The plot-maker expects us to remember, we expect him to leave no loose ends. Every action or word ought to count; it ought to be economical and spare; even when complicated it should be organic and free from dead-matter. It may be difficult or easy, it may and should contain mysteries, but it ought not to mislead. And over it, as it unfolds, will hover the memory of the reader (that dull glow of the mind of which intelligence is the bright advancing edge) and will constantly rearrange and reconsider, seeing new clues, new chains of cause and effect, and the final sense (if the plot has been a fine one) will not be of clues or chains, but of something aesthetically compact, something which might have been shown by the novelist straight away, only if he had shown it straight away it would never have become beautiful.

The book is quoted fairly heavily elsewhere on the Web, but I haven’t been able to find this particular quote anywhere. It doesn’t really amount to practical advice on writing, but then I’ve also come to the conclusion of late that when writers aim directly at such a thing they invariably miss the mark wildly—or, rather, are aiming for a target altogether not worth shooting at—a target which Forster, I think, blessedly ignores.