Letters to a Young Novelist

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

In Making Waves: Essays (1998), a wide-ranging collection of commentary and criticism written over a four-decade period, the Peruvian author and politician Mario Vargas Llosa emphasizes the role of the writer as social critic and the importance of literature as a force for change. Letters to a Young Novelist has a much narrower focus: the novelist’s craft, as seen by one of its leading practitioners.

The book consists of twelve brief letters from Vargas Llosa to a beginning writer. This “friend” remains unnamed and faceless; it seems clear that the addressee is a fictional creation. Therefore the interest of the book lies not in a developing relationship between a famous author and his disciple but rather in Vargas Llosa’s observations about his own experience with the writing process and his comments on the work of other authors.

After two rather abstract chapters on what motivates writers and where they find their themes, Vargas Llosa moves to the most valuable section of his book: discussions of style, structure, shifts in time and space, and various ways of handling point of view. Every generalization is supported by technical analyses of works by writers like the French realist Gustave Flaubert and Mississippi’s Nobel laureate William Faulkner, as well as by lesser- known novelists from Latin America and elsewhere.

The relaxed, conversational tone of the original, which is reproduced in an excellent translation, assures this fine book a wider audience than its title would suggest. Everyone who reads good fiction should find much of interest in Mario Vargas Llosa’s Letters to a Young Novelist.