Aspiring fiction writers have been reading E. M. Forster’s “Aspects of the Novel” since it was first published in 1927. I can remember devouring it in 1960 or soon after; here was one of the greatest English novelists of the 20th century, the author of “A Passage to India,” divulging the secrets of the trade — or rather, expressing strong but always courteous opinions about the rival merits and methods of the important novelists of the past. Here we first learned of “flat” (quickly sketched in) versus “round” (fully developed) characters and how every book needs some of both. Here we were told that Henry James’s decision in “The Ambassadors” to make his two chief male characters reverse positions by the end of the novel was a bad idea, a shoehorning of human vagaries into the rigors of unbending “pattern,” whereas Proust’s far better principle of composition was subject to a more fluid and spontaneous sense of “rhythm.” Forster gives as an example of rhythm Proust’s constant but never systematic or insistent return to the theme of the “little phrase,” a melody that the fictional composer Vinteuil serves up in various forms and that the characters hear at strategic moments. Forster writes of the melody, “There are times when it means nothing and is forgotten, and this seems to me the function of rhythm in fiction; not to be there all the time like a pattern, but by its lovely waxing and waning to fill us with surprise and freshness and hope.”
more from Edmund White at the NYT here.