In a previous blog I pondered the question ‘Can Fiction Writing be Learned?’ and discussed a couple of books that explored the art (and secrets) of fiction writing. The most recent publication on this subject is from a scholar who is also a novelist, the profuse, in flesh and spirit, Umberto Eco, who everyone knows since the making into film of ‘The Name of the Rose’.

Eco is approaching his eighties and can look behind a lengthy and successful career as a scholar of semiotics and literature criticism. He only began to write fiction in his fifties, therefore considers himself “a pretty young and certainly promising novelist” (p.1) who is still progressing (and learning)—hence also the title of his book.

Confessions of a Young Novelist’ (Harvard University Press 2011) tells the story of how Umberto Eco began to write, what makes him write and how he goes about writing. At the same time it is a book on how authors and readers communicate and assign meaning to fiction. It is definitely worth reading—by readers and writers alike.

Creative writing, writes Eco, is only different from other forms of writing in that the author is not in control of his/her text in the way of the scientist or academic scholar. Texts of fiction are “thrown into the world like a message in a bottle” (p.5) which means that in due course, and especially when successful, they will assume an independent existence.

This will sometimes lead to bizarre situations—such as when readers go out in search of the abbey of ‘The Name of the Rose’ or contact its author to complain that the hero of ‘Foucault’s Pendulum’ missed out on a fire along a specific Paris route on a specific date. Chapter Two of ‘Confessions of a Young Novelist’ offers several such funny examples which illustrate, in Eco’s terminology, the strange interchange between the foursome of the Model / Empirical Author and Model / Empirical Reader.

An Eco novel is based on a seminal idea, often just an image around which a narrative world is built—and a lot of research goes into constructing this world to fit the real historical period in which the action takes place. Eco wrote for instance ‘The Name of the Rose’ because he wanted to poison a monk—that was his seminal idea—and the only reason it took ‘only’ two years to write was because he had studied the Medieval Ages in his other life as an academician.

Being able to impart a sense of reality-check on fiction has something to do with why we are moved by fictional characters. But it is equally, if not more, important that this ‘real-like’ narrative world is incomplete (p.78)

“What does it mean,” Eco asks, “when people are only slightly disturbed by the death from starvation of millions of real individuals—including many children—but they feel great personal anguish at the death of Anna Karenina?” (p.75). This has to do with the fact that Anna Karenina’s character is ‘underdetermined’ (p.82) in that we do not know everything about her but only those characteristics that fit Tolstoy’s narrative world in the eponymous book.

In music that would be equivalent to the core melody of a score which is usually made up of only a few notes. How many notes can one drop without losing the melody? The equivalent question in literature would be “Would Madame Bovary [in Flaubert’s classic] still be Madame Bovary if she did not commit suicide?” (p.105)

In other words, fiction represents an attempt at closure. That this is as fulfilling as it is frightening is shown by the fact that many novelists are obsessed with enumeration and the writing of ‘lists’. Examples ‘listed’ in chapter four of Eco’s book include the list of Don Giovanni’s amorous feats in Mozart’s opera, the list of things in Bloom’s kitchen in Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’, the list of vagabonds in ‘The Name of the Rose’, the list of books in libraries real and imagined etcetera, etc. etc.

Closure versus infinity—fiction is about both, there’s the rub.

Eco’s book is instructive without being didactic–and it is entertaining.