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the Complete Review
the complete review - non-fiction


Letters to a Young Novelist

Mario Vargas Llosa

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To purchase Letters to a Young Novelist

Title: Letters to a Young Novelist
Author: Mario Vargas Llosa
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 1997 (Eng. 2002)
Length: 132 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: Letters to a Young Novelist - US
Letters to a Young Novelist - UK
Letters to a Young Novelist - Canada
Briefe an einen jungen Schriftsteller - Deutschland
  • Spanish title: Cartas a un joven novelista
  • Translated by Natasha Wimmer

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Our Assessment:

B : decent overview of aspects of the novel

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times Book Rev. . 4/8/2002 Christina Cho
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction . Spring/2003 Mark Axelrod
San Francisco Chronicle . 16/6/2002 Alan Cheuse

  From the Reviews:
  • "Mario Vargas Llosa offers less a collection o dictums on the craft of the novel than a tribute to its formal complexities and potential through his admiring comments on works by the likes of Flaubert and Cervantes." - Christina Cho, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Actually, they’re not letters at all, but both literary criticism (i.e., would a young novelist know what epigones means?) and a primer (i.e., a chapter devoted to knowing who your narrator is). (...) Under the persiflage of letters to a young novelist, Vargas Llosa gives us his take on writers and writing, much of which is a bit superficial but which, at times, gives new insight into the creative process." - Mark Axelrod, Review of Contemporary Fiction

  • "Vargas Llosa presents this book in the manner of Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet and fashions with his skilled hands a volume that is both guide and inspiration to someone just stumbling onto the path of the writer." - Alan Cheuse, San Francisco Chronicle

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       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.

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Letters to a Young Novelist: Reviews: Mario Vargas Llosa: Other works by Mario Vargas Llosa under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa was born in 1936 and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2010. He has written many works of fiction and non-fiction, and has run for the Presidency of Peru.

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