Title: Letters to a Young Novelist
Author: Mario Vargas Llosa
Written: 1997 (Eng. 2002)
Length: 132 pages
Original in: Spanish
Letters to a Young Novelist is a work of non-fiction in epistolary form, the letters in question addressed to an unnamed aspiring novelist. It is a book only of answers: the young novelist's letters and queries are not printed, though Vargas Llosa pretends they actually do exist, writing in response to specific questions and the like.
Vargas Llosa uses many real-life (or rather real-fiction) examples to explain the most significant aspects of the novel, in short letter-chapters devoted to everything from "Style" to "Shifts and Qualitative Leaps". It is less a how-do manual than a how-done treatise, using examples of familiar texts (often, surprisingly, short stories rather than actual novels) to show what fiction allows for and what can be done in and with the form.
Well read -- and not fixated one one 'right' approach --, Vargas Llosa is a good guide. He is able to explain that even an author whose writing he theoretically doesn't like, like Alejo Carpentier ("taken out of the context of his novels, his prose is exactly the opposite of the kind of writing I admire"), can craft a masterful work (such as Carpentier's The Kingdom of this World, whose "unflagging coherence and its aura of indispensability" make it the masterwork it is).
Vargas Llosa offers a wide array of examples, from Augusto Monterroso's "perfect story", the one-line piece The Dinosaur (which can be found in his collection, Complete Works & Other Stories), to beloved Flaubert, and suggests throughout that exposure to a great deal of fiction (and an openness to a variety of approaches) is among the most useful tools for the aspiring novelist. He admits, in the end, that theory isn't very helpful in the actual writing of a novel -- but does suggest that it's useful in how one considers literature (and this little book is, indeed, ultimately much more a reader's than a writer's guide).
It's all a bit pat and simple, and for those who have read this sort of thing before far too familiar, but Vargas Llosa does convey a great love of (and belief in) literature, making this a sympathetic if not exactly earth-shaking little volume. The epistolary conceit is too artificial -- Rilke's poetic letters should have been the last, not the first in this by now very annoying trend -- and it's a shame Vargas Llosa didn't try to bring the second character (the budding novelist) into the text proper; as is s/he doesn't come to life, and, as a failed fictional invention, detracts a bit from the authority of what Vargas Llosa writes.