Ever since the deconstructionists invaded the academy in the 1960s, there's been about as much love lost between the average critic and the average fiction writer as there is between a cattle ranger and a vegan. Luckily for the academy -- and for the non-academic reader -- David Lodge is no ordinary critic. He is, as he likes to say, a "practicing novelist," a humble term, suggesting that he plies his trade the way somebody with a law degree puts up a shingle and calls him- or herself a practicing lawyer. "Practicing," in Lodge's case, means that he has published 10 novels, some already classics; I'm thinking of his wicked academic satires, "Changing Places," "Small World," and "Nice Work."
Unusual for a successful fiction writer, Lodge has been a professional critic. Until 1987, when he decided to devote himself full-time to writing, he taught English at the University of Birmingham. The prospect of theory doesn't make him flinch; he can sling jargon with the meanest poststructuralist. But he won't bat around jargon like "discourse" and "the negative of absence" unless he really believes there's something to be gained by it. As he proves over and over again in these "occasional" essays, he's one of the sanest, most reasonable and gentlemanly critics in the business. He's that rare soul who combines a scholarly love of close reading and textual analysis with an artist's almost boyish enthusiasm for writers he admires.
"Admires" is too weak a word for how Lodge feels about titans like James Joyce and Vladimir Nabokov, each the subject of an essay here. (Lodge's analysis of how Nabokov subverts the classic mystery/thriller form may be the most brain-tickling thing in the book.) "Most writers," he says, "are kick-started -- that is, they begin by imitating and emulating the literature that gives them the biggest kicks." As a budding writer, Lodge says in an informal autobiographical moment (and there are many), he got the biggest kicks from Joyce, Greene and Evelyn Waugh, who get privileged treatment in "The Practice of Writing."
If you're not already a fan, some of these essays -- reflections on adapting "Nice Work" and Dickens's "Martin Chuzzlewit" for television, for instance -- will grow tedious. But if you want an outstanding thumbnail sketch of Graham Greene's career, or an analysis of how today's novelist negotiates between realism, creative nonfiction and metafiction, David Lodge -- humane, urbane and always engaging -- is your man.