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How Fiction Works

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In the tradition of E. M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel and Milan Kundera's The Art of the Novel, How Fiction Works is a scintillating study of the magic of fiction--an analysis of its main elements and a celebration of its lasting power. Here one of the most prominent and stylish critics of our time looks into the machinery of storytelling to ask some fundamental questio In the tradition of E. M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel and Milan Kundera's The Art of the Novel, How Fiction Works is a scintillating study of the magic of fiction--an analysis of its main elements and a celebration of its lasting power. Here one of the most prominent and stylish critics of our time looks into the machinery of storytelling to ask some fundamental questions: What do we mean when we say we "know" a fictional character? What constitutes a telling detail? When is a metaphor successful? Is Realism realistic? Why do some literary conventions become dated while others stay fresh? James Wood ranges widely, from Homer to Make Way for Ducklings, from the Bible to John le Carré, and his book is both a study of the techniques of fiction-making and an alternative history of the novel. Playful and profound, How Fiction Works will be enlightening to writers, readers, and anyone else interested in what happens on the page.


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In the tradition of E. M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel and Milan Kundera's The Art of the Novel, How Fiction Works is a scintillating study of the magic of fiction--an analysis of its main elements and a celebration of its lasting power. Here one of the most prominent and stylish critics of our time looks into the machinery of storytelling to ask some fundamental questio In the tradition of E. M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel and Milan Kundera's The Art of the Novel, How Fiction Works is a scintillating study of the magic of fiction--an analysis of its main elements and a celebration of its lasting power. Here one of the most prominent and stylish critics of our time looks into the machinery of storytelling to ask some fundamental questions: What do we mean when we say we "know" a fictional character? What constitutes a telling detail? When is a metaphor successful? Is Realism realistic? Why do some literary conventions become dated while others stay fresh? James Wood ranges widely, from Homer to Make Way for Ducklings, from the Bible to John le Carré, and his book is both a study of the techniques of fiction-making and an alternative history of the novel. Playful and profound, How Fiction Works will be enlightening to writers, readers, and anyone else interested in what happens on the page.

30 review for How Fiction Works

  1. 5 out of 5

    Glenn Russell

    “When I talk about free indirect style I am really talking about point of view, and when I talk about point of view I am really talking about the perception of detail, and when I talk about detail I'm really talking about character, and when I talk about character I am really talking about the real, which is at the bottom of my inquiries.” ― James Wood, How Fiction Works You might not agree with everything James Wood has to say about a particular author or work of literature, but you have to admit “When I talk about free indirect style I am really talking about point of view, and when I talk about point of view I am really talking about the perception of detail, and when I talk about detail I'm really talking about character, and when I talk about character I am really talking about the real, which is at the bottom of my inquiries.” ― James Wood, How Fiction Works You might not agree with everything James Wood has to say about a particular author or work of literature, but you have to admit there isn’t another booklover more passionately dedicated to careful reading, finely honed criticism and upholding high standards. How Fiction Works is case in point: very much like an expert mechanic examining the assorted parts of the engine in an Italian or German sports car, James Wood rolls up his sleeves and scrutinizes various aspects of what goes into the writing of fiction, especially the novel. His particular method is to undergird his analysis and reasoning with numerous examples – this is a fairly short book but there are over 100 individual literary novels quoted or referenced, from Don Quixote, Jane Eyre, Madame Bovary, What Maisie Knew, Sister Carrie and Ulysses to Invisible Man, Lolita, Seize the Day, Blood Meridian, Atonement and Gilead. And this is not exactly an easy book to read; I myself had to break an intellectual sweat, rereading passages again and again to grasp more completely Mr. Wood’s thinking. To share some of the many insights a reader will find in its pages, below are specific James Wood quotes coupled with my comments: “In reality, we are stuck with third- and first-person narration. The common idea is that there is a contrast between reliable narration (third-person omniscient) and unreliable narrator (the unreliable first-person narrator, who knows less about himself than the reader eventually does). On one side Tolstoy, say; and on the other, Humbert Humbert or Italo Sveno’s narrator, Zeno Cosini, or Bertie Wooster.” ---------- The author spends a good number of his opening pages explaining the dynamics of voice, that is, the manner in which a story is told. At one point he notes: “Actually, the first-person narration is generally more reliable than unreliable; and third-person “omniscient” narration is generally more partial than omniscient.” I’m reminded of a personal favorite, the way Colin Harrison opens his Bodies Electric using a first-person narrator who is both completely reliable and painfully honest: “My name is Jack Whitman and I should never have had the first thing to do with her. I shouldn’t have indulged myself – my loneliness, my attraction to her – not with what was happening at the Corporation at the time. But I’m as weak hearted for love and as greedy for power as the next guy, maybe more so. And I was crazy for the sex – of course that was part of it.” These opening four sentences, set off like a string of explosions, give us a clear indication of what fireworks we can expect as we turn the pages. “It is useful to watch good writers make mistakes. Plenty of excellent ones stumble at free indirect style.” ---------- Free indirect style being a blending of objective third-person narration with the thoughts and words of a character. James Wood shares the example of how John Updike in his novel Terrorist, in order to propel the story, puts impossible thoughts in the head of his eighteen-year old main character, impossible in the sense that an eighteen-year old could never have such thoughts and could never express such thoughts in the novelist’s sophisticated language. Major blunder! By the way, years ago when Updike’s novel S was first published, I recall reviewers claiming that the main character in the novel, a young woman by the name of Sarah Worth, wrote letters as if she had the literary talent of a John Updike. Again, major blunder! “Novelists should thank Flaubert the way poets thank spring: it all begins again with him. There really is a time before Flaubert and a time after him. Flaubert decisively established what most readers and writers think of as modern realist narration, and his influence is almost too familiar to be visible.” --------- In order to fully dissect how fiction works and why fiction works, Mr. Wood delves into the history of the novel, particularly innovations made within the nineteenth century. James Wood details why no novelist ever had a more profound influence on the novel than Gustave Flaubert. “Literature makes us better noticers of life; we get to practice on life itself; which in turn makes us better readers of detail in literature; which in turn makes us better readers in life. And so on and on. You have only to teach literature to realize that most young readers are poor noticers.” ---------- I can speak to the truth of Wood’s claim by my own first-hand experience: after reading Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's Cancer Ward in my early 20s, I was better prepared to deal with my own father's confinement to a hospital bed for an extended time. “There is nothing harder than the creation of fictional character. I can tell it from the number of apprentice novels I read that begin with descriptions of photographs.” ---------- Ha! First-rate fiction writers like Richard Russo and Elmore Leonard make the creation of their interesting, lifelike characters look so easy. It’s a kind of magic – it ain’t easy, as anyone who has ever tried their hand at fiction writing realizes very quickly. “There is something deeply philosophical about Dostoevsky’s analysis of human behavior, and Nietzsche and Freud were attracted to his work (One chapter of Dostoevsky’s novella The Eternal Husband is entitled “Analysis.”). Proust, who said that all of Dostoevsky’s novels might have the one title, Crime and Punishment, studied him with perhaps more care than he would admit to.” ---------- One great characteristic of a truly great novelist: they expand and deepen what it means to write a novel. Certainly the case with Dostoevsky. “This new approach to character meant a new approach to form. When character is stable, form is stable and linear – the novelist begins at the beginning, telling us about his hero’s childhood and education, moving decisively forward into the hero’s marriage, and then toward the dramatic crux of the book (something is wrong with the marriage). But if character is changeable, then why begin at the beginning? Surely it would be more effective to begin in the middle, and then move backward, and then move forward, and then move backward again? This is just the kind of form Conrad would use in Lord Jim and The Secret Agent, and Ford in The Good Soldier.” ---------- Along with voice, novelists must make clear decisions on how their novel will be structured in time. I vividly recall Charles Baxter’s First Light, a novel beginning with the main character, a middle-age Michigan car salesman by the name of Hugh Welsh, confronting a crisis involving his younger sister Dorsey, a university physicist. Each chapter moves further back in time, until we reach the last chapter when Hugh is a four-year-old boy at the hospital holding his newborn baby sister for the first time. Such authorial creativity made for unique reading. "Ford Madox Ford, in his book Joseph Conrad: A Personal Remembrance, writes wonderfully about getting a character up and running - what he calls "getting the character in." -- Ample are the reasons given in Mr. Wood's book as to why Ford's words sparkle. “We have to read musically, testing the precision and rhythm of a sentence, listening for the almost inaudible rustle of historical association clinging to the hems of modern words, attending to patterns, repetitions, echoes, deciding why one metaphor is successful and another is not, judging how the perfect placement of the right verb or adjective seals a sentence with mathematical finality.” ---------- Let me share what has helped me develop my own musical ear for reading fiction: I make it a point to occasionally read aloud. Respecting the musicality of fiction, the ear has it all over the eye. “All the great realists, from Austen to Alice Munro, are at the same time great formalists. But this will be unceasingly difficult: for the writer has to act as if the available novelistic methods are continually about to turn into mere convention and so has to try to outwit that inevitable aging. The true writer, that free servant of life, is one who must always be acting as if life were a category beyond anything the novel has yet grasped; as if life itself were always on the verge of becoming conventional.” ----------- When it comes to fiction, a writer can have all the technical skills in the world but what will really, really set them apart is . . . drum roll with capitals: IMAGINATION. A great realist; a great formalist - Canadian author Alice Munro

  2. 5 out of 5

    s.penkevich

    Critics often get a bad reputation, and likely deservingly so. I often reflect on a quote by Macedonio Fernández that a critic knows nothing of what perfect literature is, but only what it is not and, especially while writing on Goodreads, am constantly haunted by Susan Sontag's Against Interpretation. I tend to think of critics as being that friend in high school that hangs out at your band practice. He is the friend that knows more about your songs than you do, and has memorized your lyrics be Critics often get a bad reputation, and likely deservingly so. I often reflect on a quote by Macedonio Fernández that a critic knows nothing of what perfect literature is, but only what it is not and, especially while writing on Goodreads, am constantly haunted by Susan Sontag's Against Interpretation. I tend to think of critics as being that friend in high school that hangs out at your band practice. He is the friend that knows more about your songs than you do, and has memorized your lyrics before you've finished writing them; he is friend that talks about your band and is always there to support your band because somehow it makes him feel like he is part of the band, maybe even the key part. When I write on here I have to accept the fact that I am glorifying an art that puts stars in my eyes, but the more I point out theory and what does and doesn't work still in no way makes me feel as if I am able to create the art that I love to assess. Occasionally I have a bit of an existential crisis—everyone needs a good existential crisis from time to time—and wonder why I spent so much time writing about writing instead of simply attempting art myself (not that I'm a critic or am in any way qualified to give opinions on a book). Perhaps it is because I am no good at it but talking about it makes me feel like I can be part of that 'cool club' of artists, as if understanding Roberto Bolaño somehow makes me like one of the characters hanging out with him in his books that I so adore. James Wood saves me from the despair of actually loving the idea of being a critic. To be honest, if you were to ask me 'what do you want to be when you grow up?' (because at 28 I still think of the future in this way and forget that I am 'grown up', because I sure as hell don't feel like it), I would answer that my 'rock-star' dream is to teach college lit and review books for the New Yorker. Just like my boy James Wood. Wood makes reviewing its own art form that is as equally valid and beautiful as literature itself. When I read his reviews, I read them with the same awe and critical eye as I do any novelist; the man packs theory and prose into tiny packages of literary power that paint a masterpiece of ideas on the canvas of a novel. Just today I was wowed by his review of The Buried Giant in which he managed to reveal all the novel's misgivings while capturing all the author's strengths. James Wood gives critics a good name, and his How Fiction Works is an immensely valuable read. I learned more from this book than I did in all of college pursuing an English Degree. Wood tackles the theory and joy of an intensely impressive array of writers, probably pointing out even to them just what they get right or wrong (John Updike is used in some of the best 'do NOT do this' passages of the book). This book is indispensable to anyone hoping to look deeper into books and have the literary science to solidify your own opinion and will create an endless to-read list from all the examples he delivers. Wood is opinionated, and rather aggressively so, though I tend to often agree with him and even when I don't his opinions are so well argued that they are still a joy to read. I take this down off the shelf and read over select passages (it is one long essay broken up into mercifully short 'chapters') at least once every few months. This man has my rock-star job and just may be my hero.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Paul Bryant

    For 75 pages this was all clang clang clang goes the trolley ding ding ding goes the bell but then it turned a sharp corner and I think I done got throwed off the bus. Ow! As it rattled off without me I was left to think carefully about what I’m doing when I read a novel (aside from avoiding the interminable election debates on tv, OMG another 3 weeks to go), and what I think a novel is doing or supposed to be doing. It’s good to be made to think about these things. But why did I get throwed off For 75 pages this was all clang clang clang goes the trolley ding ding ding goes the bell but then it turned a sharp corner and I think I done got throwed off the bus. Ow! As it rattled off without me I was left to think carefully about what I’m doing when I read a novel (aside from avoiding the interminable election debates on tv, OMG another 3 weeks to go), and what I think a novel is doing or supposed to be doing. It’s good to be made to think about these things. But why did I get throwed off the bus? This jampacked little book is all about the why of novels, and it's got some high standards to apply to both novels and readers, so you better shape up, you readers you. Hey - I do mean YOU. Yeah. That's right. It’s like James Wood expects us to be listening to some random tune and be able to name the bass player and the producer’s previous hits and the singer’s favourite drugs and where it got to in the charts and its relation to the minor essays of Jean-Paul Sartre and Flaubert’s left earlobe. James Wood is like the gold standard reader. When you read David Foster Wallace you notice that he notices everything, I mean everything, and notices everything about himself noticing things and so on, and so forth. James Wood does all that while he reads every single novel. Not one word passes casually beneath the Wood eyeballs. Every phrase will be cross-examined. Every paragraph will have bamboo shoved up its fingernails until it confesses where it stands in regard to Stendahl, Balzac and Dostoyevsky. And Flaubert. Frankly, I was outclassed. I was more than a little crushed. I was talked down to. It had been made clear that I'd got on the wrong bus. Me! Moi! As the trolley lurched round another bend I was turning distinctly green. It was all going so well when JW was discussing the free indirect style of modern narration which enables an indeterminate locus of reality to emerge which is not the character speaking and not the author either but a fifth dimension equipoised between the two. All that was great. But then he gets in to character, a brief history of consciousness and sympathy and complexity. Then the full florid obsessions emerged – no more 20th century, only French and Russians! Balzac! More Flaubert*! Pushkin! Stendahl! Diderot! Chekhov! Tolstoy! Yeah, that’s right, punk! All those guys you never read! You were going to get round to them but well I don’t know but you just never did! Well, I bet you’re regretting that now because you can’t talk about fiction without an intimate knowledge of alla those guys. Sorry. I bet you want to slink off back into the night now doncha. Go ahead, slink. When the 20th century is reluctantly allowed into JW’s purview it’s Hardy (never read him), Buddenbrooks (never read it), Proust (same), Italo Svevo (huh?), Thomas Pynchon (no thanks) and Saul Bellow (oh, I read one by him – the wrong one). It must be said out loud: James Wood is an old school patrician sneerer. Even though he’s earned the right to sneer a hundred times over, there’s still no need for it. Here’s where I gagged: If prose is to be written as well as poetry novelists and readers must develop their own third ears. We have to read musically, testing the rhythm of a sentence, listening for the almost inaudible rustle of historical association clinging to the hems of modern words, attending to patterns, repetitions, echoes, deciding whether a metaphor is successful and another is not, judging how the perfect placement of the right verb or adjective seals a sentence with mathematical finality. We must proceed on the assumption that almost all prose popularly acclaimed as beautiful (“she writes like an angel”) is nothing of the sort, that almost every novelist will at some point be baselessly acclaimed for writing “beautifully” as almost all flowers are at some point acclaimed for smelling nice. Is this not a bit nauseating? Get off of your high horse, JW! Maybe there are 41 other human beings who read the right books with the perfect superconsciousness using their perfect brains bulging with culture in the way that JW advises, but the rest of us are real people who sometimes read in the bath with the radio on. Some of us have actually not read Flaubert’s Sentimental Education! Think of that! Some of us – you may have to lie down for this – have no intention of reading Flaubert’s Sentimental Education! We are the plebs your culture warned you about. However, at the end of this book we get 20 pages about realism. Here James Wood defends the idea that the business of fiction is to get real life in some way onto the printed page. Suddenly James Wood is my new best friend! Yes! It’s about time someone stuck it to those old haddocks William Gass and Roland Barthes. I love this: Realism, seem broadly as truthfulness to the way things are, cannot be mere verisimilitude, cannot be mere lifelikeness, or lifesameness, but what I call lifeness : life on the page, life brought to different life by the highest artistry. And it cannot be a genre; instead, it makes the forms of fiction seem like genres. For realism of this kind is the origin. It teaches everyone else; it schools its truants. So – what can I say – read the first 75 pages and the last 20, and don’t mess with Mr In-Between. ***** *We cannot write about rhythm and not refer to Flaubert, and so once again, as if unable to stop rereading the old letters of a former lover, I return to him. (Ugh)

  4. 5 out of 5

    Mike Puma

    This is a book I've read, re-read, and re-re-read. I go back to it frequently, whenever I've finished one of the titles from its bibliography, or just to revisit Wood's various topics. Deceptively simple and quickly read. If allowed, HFW will inform any novel you read. It is not comprehensive in its scope; it omits topics like plot, structure, etc. and limits itself to Wood's own intersts (an issue some reviewers take exception to). There was a time when I'd read a passage from a novel and wonde This is a book I've read, re-read, and re-re-read. I go back to it frequently, whenever I've finished one of the titles from its bibliography, or just to revisit Wood's various topics. Deceptively simple and quickly read. If allowed, HFW will inform any novel you read. It is not comprehensive in its scope; it omits topics like plot, structure, etc. and limits itself to Wood's own intersts (an issue some reviewers take exception to). There was a time when I'd read a passage from a novel and wonder 'whose word IS that?' Thanks to Wood, I realize many of those passages were written in free indirect style. Now that I can identify it, I see its use more frequently and have an appreciation for its utility. Whatever else this book is, it is NOT a how-to manual for new authors. Although, they would likely benefit from reading it. Wood's simple presentation considers an abundance of novels, many quite well-known or classics, and he adds insight to every title mentioned. This book is nothing like his books of essays, but it is informed by the same sensibility. For those who might be theory- or criticism-averse.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Terence

    I kind of hate reading books of this sort as they leave me with a heightened awareness of style, character, rhythm, etc. that makes it difficult to read average or sub-par fiction. Of course, the benefit of reading books like this is that I do cultivate a more discriminatory taste so that I read only the best "trashy" novels. I haven't read any of Wood's criticisms but if this brief tome is any indication of the author's style, erudition and insightfulness, I have been missing out. As with other b I kind of hate reading books of this sort as they leave me with a heightened awareness of style, character, rhythm, etc. that makes it difficult to read average or sub-par fiction. Of course, the benefit of reading books like this is that I do cultivate a more discriminatory taste so that I read only the best "trashy" novels. I haven't read any of Wood's criticisms but if this brief tome is any indication of the author's style, erudition and insightfulness, I have been missing out. As with other books in this genre, Wood covers the elements of the novel - narrative, detail, character, dialog, realism & style - and briefly discusses its evolution (tracing some of those elements as far back as the biblical David). While the whole work is impressive, I was taken with several particulars: NARRATIVE: Here, Wood doesn't focus so much on differences between 1st person and 3rd person so much as on what he terms "free indirect style" - which is the tension between the author's perceptions and language and the character's. As examples of this he quotes from Henry James' What Maisie Knew (a successful balance) and John Updike's Terrorist (an unsuccessful attempt): She knew governesses were poor; Miss Overmore was unmentionably and Mrs. Wix ever so publicly so. Neither this, however, nor the old brown frock nor the diadem nor the button, made a difference for Maisie in the charm put forth through everything, the charm of Mrs. Wix's conveying that somehow, in her ugliness and her poverty, she was peculiarly and soothingly safe; safer than any one in the world, than papa, than mamma, than the lady with the arched eyebrows; safe even, though so much less beautiful, than Miss Overmore, on whose loveliness, as she supposed it, the little girl was faintly conscious that one couldn't rest with quite the same tucked-in and kissed-for-good-night feeling. Mrs. Wix was as safe as Clara Matilda, who was in heaven and yet, embarrassingly, also in Kensal Green, where they had been together to see her little huddled grave. (p. 14) vs. Ahmad is eighteen. This is early April; again green sneaks, seed by seed, into the drab city's earthy crevices. He looks down from his new height and thinks that to the insects unseen in the grass he would be, if they had a consciousness like his, God. In the year past he has grown three inches, to six feet - more unseen materialist forces, working their will upon him. He will not grow any taller, he thinks, in this life or the next. If there is a next, an inner devil murmurs. What evidence beyond the Prophet's blazing and divinely inspired words proves that there is a next? Where would it be hidden? Who would forever stoke Hell's boilers? What infinite source of energy would maintain opulent Eden, feeding its dark-eyed houris, swelling its heavy-hanging fruits, renewing the streams and splashing fountains in which God, as described in the ninth sura of the Qur'an, take eternal good pleasure? What of the second law of thermodynamics? (pp. 27-8) In the first excerpt, Wood argues that James authentically inhabits Maisie's mind and yet can pull away to show the world around her. Whereas, Ahmad is thinking the Updike's thoughts, not his own (As soon as we imagine a Christian version of this narration, we can guage Updike's awkward alienation from his character (p. 29)) CHARACTER: Character is the most difficult aspect of the novel to invoke. All too often authors fall back on static imagery. (p. 95f) Good characters are invoked using the telling detail or the nontelling detail. I.e., we remember them because of what they do or fail to do. This applies both to main characters and incidental ones: Ford Madox Ford...writes wonderfully about getting a character up and running - what he calls "getting a character in...." Ford...loved a sentence from a Maupassant story, "La Reine Hortense": "He was a gentleman with red whiskers who always went first through a doorway." Ford comments: "That gentleman is so sufficiently got in that you need no more of him to understand how he will act. He has been 'got in' and can get to work at once." (pp. 96-7) Word's section titled "Brief History of Consciousness" also stands out in my mind. Here, he traces how story telling evolved from King David, all external action, to Macbeth, a tale of "publicized privacy," to Raskolnikov (Crime and Punishment), where the character "is being watched by us, the readers." (p. 146) This makes possible the novel as analyst of psychological/internal motives like no other medium before or since. (pp. 147-8) As before with "character," Wood quotes extensively from Ford's The English Novel and his memoir of Joseph Conrad: It was to Diderot...that the Novel owes its next great step forward.... At that point it became suddenly evident that the Novel as such was capable of being regarded as a means of profoundly serious and many-sided discussion and therefore a medium of profoundly serious investigation into the human case. (p. 165) And, What was the matter with the Novel...was that it went straight forward, whereas in your gradual making acquaintanceship with your fellows you never do go straight forward.... To get such a man in fiction you could not begin at his beginning and work his life chronologically to the end. You must first get him in with a strong impression and then work backwards and forwards over his past. (pp. 166-7) A few other highlights from the book: Section 97: The novel explores the complexity of human life - the contradictions and compromises all must make with themselves and others to live: Of course, the novel does not provide philosophical answers.... Instead...it gives the best account of the complexity of our moral fabric. (pp. 178-9) Section 103f: "Rhythm and Music" Having learned to discern (however faintly, in my case) the rhythms of good prose, it's difficult to read just anything. But as in music, you develop an ear for what you like and respond to. Thus, I like the cadences of Ursula Le Guin or Steve Erickson or James Branch Cabell but Robert Heinlein or Thomas Pynchon grate. In these sections, too, Wood raises problems of translation. E.g., Flaubert's original "L'idee d'avoir engendre le delectait" loses its "music" in English. I've always wished I could read the original Russian because I can't know whether I like Chekhov and Dostoyevsky or their translators. To finish out this section, an observation (paraphrased): The good novelist balances free indirect speech with style - the "music" of a sentence. Finally, toward the end of the book, Wood illustrates the competent but uninspired prose of much fiction (using an excerpt from Le Carre's Smiley's People (p. 231)). It's not bad writing but it takes few risks ("thin" hotel). The serious writer should reject "mere photographic fidelity, because art selects and shapes." (p. 240) I read a review in The New York Review of Books (Nov. 20, 2008, Vol. LV, No. 18) after finishing this book that, I think, nicely sums up what Wood is doing: This, surely, is the heart of Wood's argument, that we go to fiction for many reasons...but what we are really in search of is not fiction, but life itself. Like the figures in our dreams, the characters we encounter in fiction are really us, and the story we are told is the story of ourselves. (NYRB, p. 88) If the length of this review is any indication, you can see that I'm quite taken with this book and will be buying my own copy as soon as it comes out in paperback or I can get a cheap, used copy.

  6. 5 out of 5

    MJ Nicholls

    A verymost entertaining and informative book about books and how writers make them from words placed in different orders. Split into handy chapters but written as one lengthy essay with numerical subheadings, Wood teaches us things from Flaubert, James, Joyce, Foster Wallace and other masters and mistresses about how to identify bad writing from good, and how free indirect style is a thing of beauty when done right. Only trouble is his persistent disagreement with a William Gass quote that he mi A verymost entertaining and informative book about books and how writers make them from words placed in different orders. Split into handy chapters but written as one lengthy essay with numerical subheadings, Wood teaches us things from Flaubert, James, Joyce, Foster Wallace and other masters and mistresses about how to identify bad writing from good, and how free indirect style is a thing of beauty when done right. Only trouble is his persistent disagreement with a William Gass quote that he milks for the whole book while soldering his argument into the pages. Never disagree with The Gass. Hauntings and such to be feared. I have nothing else to add. Regard the four stars and begone.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Gabriel

    Between the years 1910 and 1915, R. A. Torrey and A. C. Dixon compiled a series of books of essays entitled "The Fundamentals." With this series, Torrey and Dixon set out to give the true Christian absolutely everything that s/he needed to know in order to have as complete a picture of the Creation as possible. Perhaps in the knowledge that they had set for themselves an impossible task, Torrey and Dixon contented themselves with holding up the Bible as the perfect truth and counseling their rea Between the years 1910 and 1915, R. A. Torrey and A. C. Dixon compiled a series of books of essays entitled "The Fundamentals." With this series, Torrey and Dixon set out to give the true Christian absolutely everything that s/he needed to know in order to have as complete a picture of the Creation as possible. Perhaps in the knowledge that they had set for themselves an impossible task, Torrey and Dixon contented themselves with holding up the Bible as the perfect truth and counseling their readers to distrust any further commentary, ignoring the fact that this was itself commentary. To a certain extent, and for a certain population, this was perhaps sound advice. It is also, of course, extraordinarily backward, reactionary, and dangerous advice. It was written in reaction to an ever-increasingly abstruse theology that, by the dawn of the 20th century, required a theologian to untangle even the most basic questions. What could a lay person do? Where to turn for answers? This is an extreme analogy to make, but James Wood's How Fiction Works is close in spirit, if only in spirit, to the volumes of Dixon and Torrey's work. Wood's book, at its core, is deeply reactionary and resistant to the impulse for change, and it threatens the nascent study of its subject with extinction, or, at the very least, irrelevance in the face of a tradition that becomes all-encompassing. And this much is obvious, or should be, with every sentence. Though Wood constantly brandishes the umbrella term "realism" or "Realism," he means to encompass all of writing up to this point, including works that many other critics--and frequently their authors as well--would not dare to call "realist." And this, in itself, is an admirable goal, tied to Wood's great facility in explaining why this should be. All works operate under the same conditions, and deal with the same medium, have similar goals in mind-- why shouldn't they be lumped together? Others have made the same point (for instance, Robbe-Grillet, who Wood quotes on this very point). But this is where Wood's imagination fails him. Because he has a very definite idea of fiction's aspirations, of the aspirations of each entirely individual and idiosyncratic writer, Wood has failed to imagine that there might be something even deeper, even more fundamental, to "How Fiction Works." He has so fallen under the spell of mimesis, of hypotyposis, that he refuses to admit that there might be some other goal, some other potentiality, that neither discounts nor ignores the mimetic quality of fiction, to fiction itself. I adduce for proof William Gass's collection of short fiction, In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, which I feel certain that Wood has read, and seems willfully to have forgotten in his desperate search for a scapegoat. Gass comes up often in the guise of Wood's straw man, largely due to a very short passage in one essay from Gass's very first collection of essays, Fiction and the Figures of Life. But In the Heart... both adheres closely to Wood's ideals and to Gass's theories. And to anyone who has read only the Wood, this would seem impossible, just as an explanation of dinosaurs walking the earth hundreds of millions of years ago would seem impossible to a Fundamentalist. But nonetheless, it is so. At least, I am humble enough to say, "the great majority of mankind believes it to be so." This is because Gass's stories do not in any way traverse Wood's ideas of triple-writing (indeed, they exemplify it, bring it to altogether new levels), but they also do something else, something which is at the heart of Gass's essays, something that Wood would not acknowledge as even being possible in fiction. Wood seems to believe that there is nothing beyond the outwardly obvious events and the inwardly intuited experiences of everyday life for the author to seek to represent in fiction, because this is all that has been done so far (according to his lights). And he is bold enough to say that this goes not only for fiction, but for all the arts. But we know intuitively that this not the case. We know this because we know that, were it so, we could never experience anything new through the arts. Even if the feeling is felt only as a great, nauseating unease, we can recognize that something new, something altogether different, has happened to us. We hope for it, because it is a thrill, if rather more like falling from a great height than one would hope for in "real life." Without that sense of hope, shared by the artist, the arts would calcify, cease to grow and mutate along with our changing world. Or perhaps, with the plastic arts concretized, the world outside of art would cease to change. We will never know, because it will never happen. Gass's essays, for those who would essay them, would tell them as much-- Gass has an extraordinarily brilliant and clear way of explaining very abstract concepts, which, sadly, Wood does not share. Gass has ideas to share and wants very badly to share them, requiring him to be absolutely clear and precise (if not always immediately, read easily, intelligle), while Wood, on the other hand, devolves to a kind of divine ecstasy in order to cover over his lack of ideas. This ecstasy is something to be admired-- it is very frequently beautiful and persuasive. But it is not therefore a truer picture of fiction. What Wood presents is, at its essence, nothing more than a reverse-engineered synthesis of fiction to this point in time. A synthesis is, of necessity, reverse-engineered of course, but, as with anything that is reverse-engineered, it is not durable. This unlikely contraption works for its intended purpose only, and when called upon for any other purpose whatever, flies apart immediately and without any measure of success. Wood's synthesis may explain satisfactorily his bloated idea of "realism," but for how long? Most of the criticism of this book has centered on this very problem, and with good reason. Wood's ideas of how fiction works admit no light, and no thought, to shine through them. They are hard and fast, despite being rather vague, precisely because they are reactionary. This book is how to read fiction, perhaps; certainly not how to write it. There is no room for real innovation, nor even for any real, sustained analysis, in Wood's idea of how fiction works. Thus, he rejects Gass's perspective entirely, as he must, in order to protect his carefully pruned system from exploding chaotically into the profusion that we can all accept as reality. When, for example, Gass essays "The Concept of Character in Fiction," he is not, whatever Wood claims here, attempting to destroy the idea of character in fiction. He is simply trying to explain it, at a depth that Wood does not even approach. As a reader and a critic, Wood may be perfectly content to remain at the surface, but as a creator, the writer who reads this book should beware-- these ideas will not permit any inquiry into "how fiction works." They will simply point you back to the great works already written, saying "That is how it is done. No reason to try anything else."

  8. 5 out of 5

    brian

    there’s nothing in here that'll surprise the seasoned reader, but it's a damn smart synthesis of it all. what really makes it a worthwhile read is wood’s obvious love for books, the enthusiasm really flies off the page. I’ll take that over anything overly clever, passionless, or jargon-rific … what i'm really wanting is a big fat book all reference like & shit, one that can be read from cover to cover, one that tells everything ya need to know about the novel. if that book doesn’t already ex there’s nothing in here that'll surprise the seasoned reader, but it's a damn smart synthesis of it all. what really makes it a worthwhile read is wood’s obvious love for books, the enthusiasm really flies off the page. I’ll take that over anything overly clever, passionless, or jargon-rific … what i'm really wanting is a big fat book all reference like & shit, one that can be read from cover to cover, one that tells everything ya need to know about the novel. if that book doesn’t already exist, one of y’all should write it. i’m thinking a ginnie jones & mike reynolds collaboration (while me and david stand on the sidelines making faces and farting noises with our armpits).

  9. 4 out of 5

    Ben Winch

    The best thing about this book is a quote from Cyril Connolly regarding what shouldn't be allowed in the novel: Many situations should be forbidden, all getting and losing of jobs, proposals of marriage, reception of love letters by either sex... all allusions to illness or suicide (except insanity), all quotations, all mentions of genius, promise, writing, painting, sculpting, art, poetry, and the phrases 'I like your stuff,' 'What's his stuff like?' 'Damned good,' 'Let me make you some coffee, The best thing about this book is a quote from Cyril Connolly regarding what shouldn't be allowed in the novel: Many situations should be forbidden, all getting and losing of jobs, proposals of marriage, reception of love letters by either sex... all allusions to illness or suicide (except insanity), all quotations, all mentions of genius, promise, writing, painting, sculpting, art, poetry, and the phrases 'I like your stuff,' 'What's his stuff like?' 'Damned good,' 'Let me make you some coffee,' all young men with ambition or young women with emotion, all remarks like 'Darling, I've found the most wonderful cottage' (flat, castle), 'Ask me another time, dearest, only please - just this once - not now,' 'Love you - of course I love you' (don't love you) - and 'It's not that, it's only I feel so terribly tired.' Forbidden names: Hugo, Peter, Sebastian, Adrian, Ivor, Julian, Pamela, Chloe, Enid, Inez, Miranda, Joanna, Jill, Felicity, Phyllis. Forbidden faces: all young men with curly hair or remarkable eyes, all gaunt haggard thinkers' faces, all faunlike characters, anybody over six feet, or with any distinction whatever, and all women with a nape to their neck (he loved the way her hair curled in the little hollow at the nape of her neck). Ha! I'd add: any fictional recreation of the Holocaust or the Second World War, especially by Anglo writers living in peacetime; any description of a character from a photograph ('I am looking at a photograph of my mother...'); any story of adultery set in a university; any opening pages involving dream sequences, airports, holidays at the beach, characters in hospital, characters in prison, characters over 60 years old written by writers under 30; any attempt to reproduce the form of e-mails, text-messages, chat-room threads; any mention of any technology at all... Joking aside, aside from the Connolly quote this is a good book, and not the narrow Chekhov-and-Flaubert-obsessed 'realist' tract that some critics have accused it of being. (There's a discussion of Saramago's Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis which shows an appreciation for something beyond so-called realism, and which, along with the bit about Diderot's Rameau's Nephew, was the other most interesting part of the book for me.) That said, I don't think it's either groundbreaking or comprehensive - more a methodical reiteration of some fundamental precepts. But what it does, it does well.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Jonathan Terrington

    How Fiction Works is a fascinating theoretical book that should be read by anyone interesting in literature, linguistics and the foundations underlying creative writing itself. James Wood draws references from many different books and breaks everything down to varying levels of analysis to have a look at what makes fiction fiction. Wood's most interesting aspect of his book is how he breaks everything down into different levels and aspects. What I mean by this is that he has chapters on each impo How Fiction Works is a fascinating theoretical book that should be read by anyone interesting in literature, linguistics and the foundations underlying creative writing itself. James Wood draws references from many different books and breaks everything down to varying levels of analysis to have a look at what makes fiction fiction. Wood's most interesting aspect of his book is how he breaks everything down into different levels and aspects. What I mean by this is that he has chapters on each important thing that is unique to fiction or plays a highly important part. Narration, narrative, detail, characters, consciousness, language and even realism are all woven into a kind of patchwork. There is no real conclusion to his book it's more a kind of theoretical analysis of what goes on in books. And it's all incredibly fascinating. There are some sections which are cruder than others, by which I mean rougher and less polished, but on the whole it's very well written. I found the whole aspect of Wood's writing about free indirect style, author's choices in novels and how language can take on a life of its own fascinating. I fully recommend this book for a look at the theory of fiction and to provide readers a way of looking at writer's choices in a different light.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Michael

    this is gently deceptive as a title: this is not how 'fiction' works but how a 'sort' of fiction works. which happens to be his 'sort' and likely to be the 'sort' that interests someone who would read a book like this. on the one, acknowledged classics, admired contemporary, widely sourced. on the other, neither breathtakingly popular, which might garner readers for possibly non-literary reasons such as this movie or that event or person, nor obscurely involved in literary exploration of exactly this is gently deceptive as a title: this is not how 'fiction' works but how a 'sort' of fiction works. which happens to be his 'sort' and likely to be the 'sort' that interests someone who would read a book like this. on the one, acknowledged classics, admired contemporary, widely sourced. on the other, neither breathtakingly popular, which might garner readers for possibly non-literary reasons such as this movie or that event or person, nor obscurely involved in literary exploration of exactly what he says is needed to make 'fiction work', such as 'character', 'narrator', 'voice' and so on... it is brief. it is concise. it is clear. it has a good bibliography. and i discover, by the number of said books read, that yes i am someone who would read a book like this...

  12. 5 out of 5

    Justin Evans

    I confess, I came into this expecting to dislike it. But the first chapters were perfectly readable if derivative, and had enough small moments of insight that I was really keen to keep reading. Reviews such as Walter Kirn's in the NYT pushed me even further towards wanting to like Wood, since citing Huck Finn, On the Road and Jesus' Son as three 'masterpieces'* that Wood can't account for is a bit like suggesting that a book about fashion can't account for fashion masterpieces such as happy pan I confess, I came into this expecting to dislike it. But the first chapters were perfectly readable if derivative, and had enough small moments of insight that I was really keen to keep reading. Reviews such as Walter Kirn's in the NYT pushed me even further towards wanting to like Wood, since citing Huck Finn, On the Road and Jesus' Son as three 'masterpieces'* that Wood can't account for is a bit like suggesting that a book about fashion can't account for fashion masterpieces such as happy pants, pith helmets and edible underwear: maybe it can't, but that's probably for the best. And, pace Kirn, Wood can write--the fact that he doesn't feel the need to dip his penis in LSD prior to yawping about his own genius is, I think, a virtue. And then it all falls to pieces, because Wood is not only propagandizing for his own view of what good fiction is--as any critic should do. He also pretends that all good literature is what he thinks good literature is. I'm fine with someone writing a book about how 'realism' is the central impulse behind writing fiction, and saying that that realism consists in 'visual noticing,' detail (visual and or intellectual), sympathy with others, and revealing to us the motives of characters without spelling it out to us. I disagree, but this is a decent statement of a reasonable position. When you end up saying things like: "Shakespeare is essentially being a novelist" when Lady Macbeth and Macbeth have an argument onstage, or that Pope's 'Rape of the Lock' is "an early form of free indirect style," you can only do damage to those works or our understanding of them. The fact that Pope's work and Shakespeare's works are great *despite* not being realism suggests that fiction can be great without being what Wood considers realism. Claiming them for your argument is underhanded, like saying Karl Malone is a Laker great because he played one season for the Lakers; any sensible understanding of his career sees him as a Jazz great. And it goes downhill from there. Wood considers plot to be essentially juvenile (his words, 149), he has nothing interesting to say about dialogue, and concludes that fiction is concerned mainly to accurately see "the way things are", that is, to be true to life. Therefore, any literature that tries mainly to do something else (e.g., tries to make you laugh, tries to make you cry, tries to suggest how things *should* be, complains about the way things are) falls outside his understanding of fiction, unless it's so great (Shakespeare; Pope; Kafka is about how it would feel to be an insect) that it just can't be doing anything other than what a few nineteenth and twentieth century novelists are trying to do. Wood has written a polemic against the likes of Roland Barthes, without understanding the force of their argument--an argument that is, I agree, foolish and misguided. He quotes Barthes: "The function of narrative is not to 'represent,' it is to constitute a spectacle still very enigmatic for us but in any case not of a mimetic order... 'what takes place' in narrative is, from the referential (reality) point of view literally nothing; 'what happens' is language alone, the adventure of language, the unceasing celebration of its coming." Wood argues against i) the obviously true claim that literature doesn't refer to anything. But, to take one of Wood's own examples: Isabel Archer does not exist, therefore the name Isabel Archer is not referring to some actually existing thing. Something else is going on. How is that anything other than a statement of fact? ii) Barthes's opposition to conventionality. Despite the fact that there is no mention here of conventionality, Wood assumes that the argument must be something like 'because fiction uses conventions, it can't refer to reality.' And that that is an attack on conventions in literature. His response is to say that everything is conventional, therefore Barthes is talking nonsense. But the the really obnoxious bit here is the completely unfounded claim that literature is just the celebration of the 'coming' of language, a human tool that Barthes (and many others) more or less deify. If that was true, there'd be no reason to read one thing rather than another. My review of this book would be just as celebratory of language's coming down from the heavens as would, say, Gulliver's Travels. Barthes makes language a god, and Wood claims that there is one thing that authors are trying to do. They're both wrong. Authors try to do different things at different times, many of them try to do those things well, and you need to use different standards for different works. Barthes' work was an okay explanation and spirited defense of one thing that a couple of authors did in the sixties. Wood's book is a great explanation and defense of *one* thing that authors have done for the last 200 years. But to claim anything more for 'realism' than that is to do a tremendous disservice to the wonderful range of literature out there, everything from invective to epic, from Jane Austen to Javier Marias. You should read this book, so you'll know about the two extreme positions; and then you should read The Memoirs of Martinus Scriblerus, to remind yourself that both Barthes and Wood are dead wrong. ************************************************************************* * I find it hard to think of any book the citation of which is more likely to make me viscerally disagree with or even hate you, than those three. One is a children's book, one is slumming drug-lit drivel by an otherwise talented author, and one is Americo-libertarian drivel that should come with a #firstworldproblems warning. And all of are considered masterpieces. It's too bizarre.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Manan Desai

    To begin with, title is misleading. You expect a simplified yet exhaustive explanation of fiction from the title. Instead what you get is a short scholarly exposition of literary theory. That is not to say that this book is only for literature students and literary critics. There are good parts in it with simple explanation of various literary aspects of fiction. Chapters on narration and detail are particularly interesting and eye-opening. About one third of the book deals with varieties of narra To begin with, title is misleading. You expect a simplified yet exhaustive explanation of fiction from the title. Instead what you get is a short scholarly exposition of literary theory. That is not to say that this book is only for literature students and literary critics. There are good parts in it with simple explanation of various literary aspects of fiction. Chapters on narration and detail are particularly interesting and eye-opening. About one third of the book deals with varieties of narration. Wood introduced me to 'Free Indirect Style' of narration pioneered by Henry James and Gustave Flaubert. Author gives an example of What Maisie Knew. What Maisie Knew was probably the first novel ever written from the point of view of a child stuck in the middle her parents' divorce. Author states that in a single paragraph James narrates in three different voices; that of Maisie, that of adults understood and interpreted by Maise and the author himself. Another interesting chapter is about innovative phrases authors incorporate to describe seemingly mundane details. For example, description of fire is given as 'rushing bouquet' by DH Lawrence and as 'a scarlet handful of fire' by Thomas Hardy. How Fiction Works may not have been as good as How to Read Literature Like a Professor: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines by Thomas Foster, but it did open me up to 'Free Indirect Style' of narration and it did make me want to read almost everything by James, Flaubert, Hardy and Lawrence. If you like books about books and literary criticism then you should read this book.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Lea

    This book lay next to my bed for over a year, half-way read through. It confused me greatly, and a lot of things went over my head. I got the feeling James Wood really had no problem losing me right away. When he talks about novels and tells you what he think is happening there, structurally or stylistically, he expects you to have read them and know the characters names by heart. Which meant whenever he talked about authors I've read - Sartre, Mann, Austen, Roth, Foster Wallace, etc - I could f This book lay next to my bed for over a year, half-way read through. It confused me greatly, and a lot of things went over my head. I got the feeling James Wood really had no problem losing me right away. When he talks about novels and tells you what he think is happening there, structurally or stylistically, he expects you to have read them and know the characters names by heart. Which meant whenever he talked about authors I've read - Sartre, Mann, Austen, Roth, Foster Wallace, etc - I could follow and found some of the things he said enlightening. And whenever he talked of authors I hadn't read - Flaubert & most of the Russians - I felt instantly lost. This is highly pretentious both in its wording and the structure (over 100 short, numbered paragraphs), as well as in how sure James Wood is of himself and is assertions. Still, there were interesting notes and the book did get me wondering about the pros and cons of realism and realistic style. Also, it made me want to read some of the books he talked about that I haven't read yet. His enthusiasm for them was really tangible. This is not so much a book for writers (or not meant to be), as it is a book for seasoned readers. We have to read musically, testing the precision and rhythm of a sentence, listening for the almost inaudible rustle of historical association clinging to the hems of modern words, attending to patterns, repetitions, echoes, deciding why one metaphor is successful and another is not, judging how the perfect placement of the right verb or adjective seals a sentence with mathematical finality.

  15. 5 out of 5

    David

    Where's the option for 3.5 stars when you need it? Points in this book's favor - It's short, and very readable. In the second of two introductions, Wood promises to be "mindful of the common reader" and to try to "reduce .. the scholastic stink to bearable levels". He does a commendable job of keeping his promise. Wood's enthusiasm for reading is evident throughout, and is infectious. The strongest aspect of the book are the many specific examples that Wood provides of what works and doesn't work Where's the option for 3.5 stars when you need it? Points in this book's favor - It's short, and very readable. In the second of two introductions, Wood promises to be "mindful of the common reader" and to try to "reduce .. the scholastic stink to bearable levels". He does a commendable job of keeping his promise. Wood's enthusiasm for reading is evident throughout, and is infectious. The strongest aspect of the book are the many specific examples that Wood provides of what works and doesn't work in fiction. Refreshingly, the ratio of positive to negative examples is high, so that we are treated to eloquence inspired by enthusiasm, rather than critical disregard, for the most part. His insights on Chekhov, Joyce, Nabokov (to name just a few) prompt me to go back and (re)read the work in question. On the other hand - Although I didn't find his style overtly pompous, there is an inescapable aura that one is reading dispatches from what Walter Kirn, in his wicked New York Times takedown*, refers to as "someone who has attained the detached, big-picture perspective of an orbiting critical satellite". A slightly offputting air of omniscience. An enthusiasm for Flaubert (and, to a lesser extent, Henry James) that borders on burbling adulation. There's nothing wrong with this, of course, but when coupled with what appears to be a blanket dislike for almost everything even remotely postmodern, one begins to feel that Wood might be a helpful guide only for a certain subclass of fiction. David Foster Wallace, for example, gets dissed several times throughout the book, with little recognition of his considerable talent and influence. Of the 90 or so works referred to in the book, only 20 date from 1965 or later. On balance, though, I very much enjoyed the book. For a perfectly valid, and thoroughly amusing, view to the contrary, see Walter Kirn's NYT review at the link below. *: link to Kirn's review is here - http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/17/boo...

  16. 4 out of 5

    Helle

    James Wood is brilliant! He simply is, and reading this book felt more like a conversation with a man who sees all in literature and loves literature, than a book or a lecture. It was a pleasure to read, and I will certainly re-visit it at some point – after having re-read or read, as the case may be, more of the novels he takes his many illustrative, interesting and apt examples from. Wood is a connoisseur of literature, in the extreme, but he never becomes condescending or didactic. He illumin James Wood is brilliant! He simply is, and reading this book felt more like a conversation with a man who sees all in literature and loves literature, than a book or a lecture. It was a pleasure to read, and I will certainly re-visit it at some point – after having re-read or read, as the case may be, more of the novels he takes his many illustrative, interesting and apt examples from. Wood is a connoisseur of literature, in the extreme, but he never becomes condescending or didactic. He illuminates whilst appreciating; he questions beliefs about genres and about so-called truths set forth by other critics or by writers; and he moves in and out of macro- and micro-perspectives like character, consciousness, narrating and good metaphors. He sometimes also includes examples from films, which I personally loved. It seems almost irreverent, compared to how lit crit is traditionally dealt with, and it felt not only refreshing but completely obvious and added extra nuances to the discussion. James Wood is clearly a humanistic aesthete and not simply an ‘ordinary’ critic. Most importantly, he is utterly readable, and I can think of nothing better to read and wallow in than a well-written book about well-written novels.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Ben Loory

    should be called SOME REMARKS ON STYLE. seems supremely uninterested in "how fiction works," at least in the sense of "how a story works" or even "what a story is." in fact story is never discussed at all. character gets short shrift as well. actually there's really nothing discussed in here that might serve as an engine for literary creation. but maybe that's it; it's just not a book for writers. not really sure who it is a book for though. apparently for people who like saul bellow a lot. wish should be called SOME REMARKS ON STYLE. seems supremely uninterested in "how fiction works," at least in the sense of "how a story works" or even "what a story is." in fact story is never discussed at all. character gets short shrift as well. actually there's really nothing discussed in here that might serve as an engine for literary creation. but maybe that's it; it's just not a book for writers. not really sure who it is a book for though. apparently for people who like saul bellow a lot. wish i'd read a saul bellow book instead.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Cheryl

    This is a literary paean to the joys of good fiction. It is a deceptively simple title. It is really a guided tour of various works, and Wood delights in explaining what is extraordinary about devices or passages used in these stories. Sometimes he also takes pains to describe what doesn't work, being famously disappointed with Updike's The Terrorist, for instance. The greatest pleasure was to admire Wood's own wonderful stylings and prose.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Henrik

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. Almost whimsically James Wood writes about what he thinks makes fiction work and, in the process, what doesn't work. This is done in a few number of pages, where he covers a lot of ground. And it works. One of the things I appreciated the most is that Wood isn't (to use a term nowadays almost gone) high-brow. He is tremendously well-read--and is well-traversed in an amazing wide range of styles, genres etc., and is obviously among the more well-educated of critics--but he is not above mentioning b Almost whimsically James Wood writes about what he thinks makes fiction work and, in the process, what doesn't work. This is done in a few number of pages, where he covers a lot of ground. And it works. One of the things I appreciated the most is that Wood isn't (to use a term nowadays almost gone) high-brow. He is tremendously well-read--and is well-traversed in an amazing wide range of styles, genres etc., and is obviously among the more well-educated of critics--but he is not above mentioning books from "mere" mainstream fiction to make a point, incl. good points. Considering how much he encompasses (from narration across detail, style and truth, conventionalism to what is truth in a fictional text?), it is no surprise that there's a shortage of really powerful arguments; yet I am quite surprised that through the swift stroke of his sentences, eloquently painted with well-chosen examples from literature, he manages to make a brief but quite strong case for any thing he says. That's a feat demanding respect. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. And when you're done with it, you can use it as a compass for further, indepth reading about this interesting area.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Vanessa

    An excellent book written from a man who is truly a lover of literature. This was an accessible introduction to literary criticism, and Woods challenged many of the common theorists/critics, widening (as a result) the possibilities for interpretation of any text. I feel like I learned a fair bit from reading this book, and I am looking forward to reading future books with a (hopefully) fresh pair of eyes.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Tyler

    Once it came out in paperback I didn’t wait to buy this book. This writer does what the title suggests – he tells his readers how to direct attention when reading fiction. Many topics are covered: narration, detail, character, language and dialog, to name a few. Dozens of books are cited for the effective employment of particular strategies, so a side benefit is an armful of new reading ideas. Wood traces the origin of fiction. In ancient texts we find characters such as Kind David who simply spea Once it came out in paperback I didn’t wait to buy this book. This writer does what the title suggests – he tells his readers how to direct attention when reading fiction. Many topics are covered: narration, detail, character, language and dialog, to name a few. Dozens of books are cited for the effective employment of particular strategies, so a side benefit is an armful of new reading ideas. Wood traces the origin of fiction. In ancient texts we find characters such as Kind David who simply speak and act. They have no minds, as it were. Later, plays like Hamlet glimpse into a character’s interior using soliloquy. But then, perhaps in reaction to the certitude of the edifying tales printed in the 17th century, the modern novel evolved. With it emerged relativity – characters who change, in whom good and evil struggle, and by whose thoughts and quoted speech they perhaps wish to become known. Characterization has achieved life. Jane Austen’s protagonists, for instance, stand out because they, among all her characters, possess this "secret of consciousness." Technique emerges. Quoted speech soon gives way to indirect speech, which is sometimes refined into unidentified indirect speech, a kind of stand-in for a Greek chorus. Modern readers have gained intimate access to the minds of characters. And to show what a character is thinking, Wood reminds us, is the power that distinguishes fiction from all other arts. Readers see what makes for good or bad prose. The author notes the effectiveness of leaving open the question, when it comes to detail, of who is doing the noticing, the character or the author. He discusses the need, in dialog, to avoid explanation. He stresses the need to attain internal plausibility even at the expense of realism. We read about the use of appropriate diction. We hear about transparent characters and opaque ones. We find out about the use of the passive voice, the proper use of flat or dynamic detail, and the use of effective metaphor. Understanding fiction is interesting and useful. Wood's own writing is as good as much of what he cites, and he doesn't dwell pedantically on particular topics. Who wouldn’t want to find out more? Here we have a commendable book for any fiction reader

  22. 4 out of 5

    Samuel Bigglesworth

    The main learning from this is about free indirect form. Very interesting. It's a technique I've used a lot because it feels natural, but never heard it defined or discussed before. It's good to read someone breaking it down. Also the section about detail was very useful.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Lee

    A great reading list (in chronological order) at the end. Otherwise: Eh+. Just fine reading. Nothing mind-blowingly new. No humor other than the suggestion that he's reminded of a description of a veiny cigar every day, that is, when he masturbates? The final pages about lifeness are solid and mildly inspiring. As far as a technical book for writers, I prefer the efficiency, clarity, and cleverness of "Making Shapely Fiction" -- but this book nicely retells the evolutionary history of the elemen A great reading list (in chronological order) at the end. Otherwise: Eh+. Just fine reading. Nothing mind-blowingly new. No humor other than the suggestion that he's reminded of a description of a veiny cigar every day, that is, when he masturbates? The final pages about lifeness are solid and mildly inspiring. As far as a technical book for writers, I prefer the efficiency, clarity, and cleverness of "Making Shapely Fiction" -- but this book nicely retells the evolutionary history of the elements of fiction, reminds you what it means to read closely, and might help when editing, but most of what he talks about, at least in terms of composing, I'm sure is not premeditated by writers but produced by talent, sensibility, sensitivity, and practice - it's the by-product of skills at work whilst "deeply imagining" (as Ethan Canin says). Sometimes pretty stuffy and staid other than a hot Philip Roth passage. Occasional exclamation points to emphasize the awesomeness of certain passages that seemed semi-unexceptional to me . . . Not sure who this book is intended for: the choir already mostly knows this stuff (and appreciates the examples, sure) but new recruits would probably be superbored and maybe even intimidated by the literary centrality/staidness, not to mention the excessive adoration of Saul Bellow and Henry James? Ultimately, I'd love to see the same structure of this book filled out with comparing/contrasting content by someone like a certain Mr. David Foster Wallace -- that is, I guess I'd've liked some refreshing humor (ie, a variance in "registers," as he talks about in the section on style) and totally scintillating, un-ever-thought-before-by-me-or-probably-anyone-else insight -- enhanced perception instead of recognition and admiration.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Alex

    I basically underlined this entire book.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Richard

    Some books get all the luck. When a reader is first exposed to a perspective never before seen, or an effort of creation never imagined, that book that triggered this will loom larger, regardless of its merits. Wood's book is the first litcrit book I've ever read; or at least that I can recall (there are plenty of books I read twenty or thirty years ago that would surprise me now). I got lucky, since this is a engagingly written and passionate work of a bibliophile, but what earned it that extra s Some books get all the luck. When a reader is first exposed to a perspective never before seen, or an effort of creation never imagined, that book that triggered this will loom larger, regardless of its merits. Wood's book is the first litcrit book I've ever read; or at least that I can recall (there are plenty of books I read twenty or thirty years ago that would surprise me now). I got lucky, since this is a engagingly written and passionate work of a bibliophile, but what earned it that extra star was that I hadn't studied the craft of writing before, so it hadn't occurred to me that it would refine my craft of reading as well. As others here have complained, this makes pedestrian prose a bit harder absorb, but Wood also remind us that there is probably still plenty of excellent fiction that can be turned to instead. The overwhelming majority of books I read come from the public library -- San Francisco's main is only a ten minute walk. This will be one of the very rare books that makes it to my 'buy' shelf. I think it will also be that even rarer book, one that I'll hope to re-read often -- although my infatuation may lessen if and when I find other (perhaps better?) litcrit books. I just took a look at that shelf, and it reminded me that Wood's frequent references to books I haven't yet read, or to books I read as a less enlightened reader brought back to mind Helene Hanff's 84, Charing Cross Road. I don't recall anything about Hanff's skill as a writer, but she must be one of the most delightful readers of the past century. If you haven't read her short, epistolatory memoir, then you are missing out on a classic. (The movie is a conceptual sacrilege: a story about readers should be read, not watched!) P.S.: Take a look at the moderately glowing review from The Economist, and an article-on/interview-with the author from the Harvard Crimson (2003). E.T.A.: A splendid essay on writing can be found at the New Yorker, by John McPhee: Omission: Choosing what to leave out .

  26. 5 out of 5

    Eduardo

    This is a little book (7 x 5 inches / 248 pages of text) with a lot of personality. JW forgot to add the adjective ‘good’ to his title: How [good] fiction works should be, because that is what this sort of manual-compendium is all about. It is packed with clever and original insights about what makes (good) fiction. In «Narrating» JW is an advocate of a free indirect style. In «Detail» of a careful choice of them (“exact palpabilities”). In «Character» presentation, JW favors less than more (“v This is a little book (7 ½ x 5 inches / 248 pages of text) with a lot of personality. JW forgot to add the adjective ‘good’ to his title: How [good] fiction works should be, because that is what this sort of manual-compendium is all about. It is packed with clever and original insights about what makes (good) fiction. In «Narrating» JW is an advocate of a free indirect style. In «Detail» of a careful choice of them (“exact palpabilities”). In «Character» presentation, JW favors less than more (“very few brush strokes are needed to get a portrait” going); flat characters are more interesting than one makes them to be, and round ones are more complicated than we imagine them to be: “subtlety of analysis is what is important”. He is a proponent of pattern plus language over the obsession with ‘realism’. Dialogues should be bare, without explanations and ‘telling’ adverbs. How can we disagree with him?: “[...] good prose [favors] the telling and brilliant detail; [it] privileges a high degree of visual noticing; [it] maintains an unsentimental composure and knows how to withdraw, like a good valet, from superfluous commentary; [it] judges good and bad neutrally; [it] seeks out the truth, even at the cost of repelling us; [the] author’s fingerprints on all this are, paradoxically, traceable but not visible”. There is an ample series of examples, for good and not so good fiction, that JW uses for his points, all from novels and short story collections in his personal library, a bibliography of which is included at the end. There is a lot of hits but also some misses. One of the latter is when he explains to us, in a footnote that seems like added in a rush, why we read: “We read fiction because it pleases us, moves us, is beautiful, and so on –because it is alive and we are alive”. This is like saying that we drink milk because we are in love with its dazzling white color, or because it symbolically links us to our mothers, or because it goes so well with chocolate ice cream.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Nick

    Perhaps the worst transgression of James Wood's How Fiction works is its title. Make no mistake, this is not a book about how to write a novel. Wood never addresses plot, or pacing, or even theme. Instead he's clear that the most important - perhaps the only important - goals of the novelist are to give ever-richer and more compelling details, and to be outsmarting convention at every turn. It's a highfalutin vision of writing, and Wood is pointedly dismissive of genre fiction. He instead delves Perhaps the worst transgression of James Wood's How Fiction works is its title. Make no mistake, this is not a book about how to write a novel. Wood never addresses plot, or pacing, or even theme. Instead he's clear that the most important - perhaps the only important - goals of the novelist are to give ever-richer and more compelling details, and to be outsmarting convention at every turn. It's a highfalutin vision of writing, and Wood is pointedly dismissive of genre fiction. He instead delves most into Henry James and Flaubert, almost completely eschewing the modern age. A better title might be, "Redefining High Fiction," because this is largely an essay on what work we as readers should respect and what we shouldn't. Despite those shortcomings, fiction authors will benefit from Wood's extremely lucid description of what he calls "free indirect style." This is the dance we all see in modern novels without naming it, whereby third-person perspectives hew close to characters' own experiences and yet maintain voices independent of any character. The analysis will improve the clarity of your thinking about your fiction, so be sure to read to at least page 58 before returning this book to your local library.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Beth

    4.5 stars This is my favourite book of literary criticism; I prefer poetry to prose in my "scholarly career" (dear God), but this is perhaps the best work I've ever read, and it's a prose work. Not only is it very useful, it's highly original, and genuinely revelatory. I love it.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Jesse

    Mr. Wood prepare for rebuttal: This book started with plenty of promise and then slowly (but inexorably) faded into that jaded downfall of all critics: personal opinion. Wood begins the book (and titles it) with an eye toward explaining how fiction manages to pull off its alchemical (his word, and what a great one) magic, using a term – “free indirect style” – to discuss how the narrator of most fictional works blends authorial diction and syntax, with words and phrases culled straight from a ch Mr. Wood prepare for rebuttal: This book started with plenty of promise and then slowly (but inexorably) faded into that jaded downfall of all critics: personal opinion. Wood begins the book (and titles it) with an eye toward explaining how fiction manages to pull off its alchemical (his word, and what a great one) magic, using a term – “free indirect style” – to discuss how the narrator of most fictional works blends authorial diction and syntax, with words and phrases culled straight from a character’s mind (usually the main character of a particular sequence). Wood uses various examples to show how this allows an author economy of style as well as allowing the reader a peak inside of a character’s mind. And this seems to be what helps us get past being “marooned in our own skulls” (DFW’s words), what allows us to see how similar we all are. This is, of course, an illusion, which Wood acknowledges - thus the words “alchemical magic” - yet it’s a beneficial and generous illusion: a comforting one. Wood highlights this point by using a flawless passage from “What Maisie Knew” (I, for one, have never read Henry James and every time I try I get sorta heavy-lidded, I think this one passage must be an anomaly, but I’d love to be persuaded otherwise by enthusiastic recommendations). The passage comes down to this one word “embarrassingly” that perfectly bridges the narrator and her character, Maisie. The passage really does work well, and almost convinced me to give James a shot. But then the trouble started, Wood suddenly says, but then it’s very instructional to see a master fail at using these techniques. He then offers an Updike passage from a late novel, “Terrorist” (which seems almost unfair, he’s written so many classic books about Middle America that are impeccable in terms of tone and control and all those other writerly words, that picking from his book about an Islamic terrorist seems almost sinister, but Updike published it, so I guess it’s fair game). The passage is clunky, obvious and easy to tear apart with a simple little trick, i.e.: “image a Christian thinking this and you’ll see how poor this writing is”. But Updike was taking a chance and stepping outside of his comfort zone. Wood then quotes a David Foster Wallace passage from “The Suffering Channel”. This also struck me as disingenuous because Wood then goes on to make the point that Wallace’s writing is unruly and at times down right ugly (“hideously ugly” is the exact words) because Wallace has swallowed the whole of American culture and diction and used this diction as his writing style. This is true in some parts of “Oblivion” - and you could argue “Brief Interviews” - but in Wallace’s first, let’s say, four books, he has a very breezy, yet insanely knowledgeable style, fully-equipped with poetical description (cf. “Church Not Made with Hands”), big heart (cf. “Gately sections of IJ” and narration writing all over the character’s style (cf. Wallace writing about American comfort culture in “ASFTINDA”). This is what makes me think the James passage is an anomaly - if he picks the worst, least representative passages of the authors he doesn’t like then he must pick the finest, most exquisite passages of the authors he appreciates (another author he admires is Tolstoy, which I think we all agree on). This brings me to another complaint about Wood: either he is broadly read but not deeply read (i.e. he has read one of two books from each author he disapproves of, which I doubt), or he judges writers he doesn’t like for aesthetic reasons based on their lesser work. And this really pisses me off about literature (as well as political, come to think of it) critics. They make decisions about a writer based on subjective, aesthetic criteria or identity politics and then argue their point by selecting misleading passages and pretending as if this was why they really don’t like a writer. Wood doesn’t like Wallace because he doesn’t like his literary aesthetic, which Wood dubbed “hysterical realism”. This is a common yet critical misreading of Wallace. But if Wood read Wallace like he did James or Flaubert he would understand what exactly Wallace’s mission was in his best works, not pick some lesser stories and act like that is all David Foster Wallace is about stylistically or thematically. Wallace uses his aesthetic and linguistic gifts as well as postmodern narrative techniques to lure the reader in, and invite rereading. This is when Wallace reveals his clandestine purpose, which really isn’t all that clandestine – this is all he talked about in interviews, constantly griping about how critics completely missed the point of I.J. – how it’s about sadness not deconstruction. Of course, I doubt Wood reread I.J. he already knew why Wallace wrote the book, he didn’t need another time through to figure it out – enigmas be damned. And this is my biggest complaint against Wood. Early in the book he praised Roland Barthes (with his authorial genocide). And after reading Zadie Smith’s interpretation (from “Changing my Mind”) of Barthes’ larger mission, that of yanking control of textual meaning from the author and handing it to the reader (or really the critic in Wood’s case), I understand the allure of Barthes to a critic like Wood. No longer does he have to solve Nabokov’s embedded riddles or reread a 1000 pg. novel, Wood can make a decision about an author and his aesthetics or meaning and then choose disingenuous passages from their work to try and back up his position (which is now the correct interpretation as seen through the prism of Barthes authorial serial killing). For instance he quotes from Nabokov’s story “First Love” claiming that Nabokov freezes detail into a cult of itself. It’s almost as if Wood hasn’t even read the story, which is about a child’s infatuation with a ten year old French girl named Colette. The story begins with a transcontinental train ride from St. Petersburg to Paris, which uses detail not as a temple unto itself, but in order to “alchemically” transport the reader into a different place and time; through detail Nabokov can allow me this experience. “Free indirect style” is not the only magic fiction has to offer. After the boy and his family take a connecting bus to Biarritz, the narrator describes the following street scene (which Wood quotes in his book as his example): “an elderly flower girl, with carbon eyebrows and a painted smile, nimbly slipped the plump torus of a carnation into the buttonhole of an intercepted stroller whose left jowl accentuated its royal fold as he glanced down sideways at the coy insertion of the flower.” Not exactly Ray Carver, but not Nicholson Baker either. Wood then quotes an Updike novel (an early one, because Wood refuses to quote from an author’s best work if he is deriding the author) to show how Nabokov’s rather innocuous attention to detail petrifies into the immutable cult of paying attention (he even uses the word “propaganda”, and - I don’t know about you - but when I hear that word in an argument, I immediately cast aspersions on the validity of its (the word’s) owning rationale). Nabokov’s detail is a continuation of the detail used in the train car: employed to place the reader in Biarritz through this strange image of an aged flower girl, unsolicited, placing a flower in a passerby’s buttonhole, you can see him glancing down, “jowl accentuating” the “royal fold”. Wood then states: “Aestheticism is the great risk here”. Wha!?!? Please think about that statement, which betrays Wood’s true barometer of fiction. Wood doesn’t like style. Of course he likes anything from 1920 and before which doesn’t read as stylistically risky since all those styles have become stultified through repetition. I know this: if Wood was alive when Flaubert wrote he would call him an Aesthete, a slave to the mot juste, sacrificing the immorality of Emma Bovary on the altar of flawless prose. Wood recognizes the revolution Flaubert brought to the novel, but can’t realize the revolution Nabokov brought. Wood just constantly misses the point; Nabokov’s style serves his story of childhood infatuation and memory. It’s not a risk, but a reward, at least for the reader who’s not fighting Nabokov for textual meaning, the reader who trusts Nabokov will reward him for the effort he brings to the text. One last gripe about “How Fiction Works”: Wood starts the book with a caveat about notation – just listen to this sentence and all its connotations: “Mindful of the common reader, I have tried to reduce what Joyce calls “the true scholastic stink” to bearable levels.” So Wood is concerned with not looking the inkhorn, but uses “the common reader” as an excuse to lesson the pedantic appearance of rigorous scholastic standards (Picture please that “common reader” – oh, wow, that Janet Evanovich novel moved me to no end, I would love to know how this happened: how fiction actually works – oh, look here - “How Fiction Works” by James Wood, I hope there aren’t footnotes). This comes back to bite Wood. The Nabokov story he quotes is sited as having been published in 1925 (when Nabokov was first writing stories in Russian, not English, the language “First Love” was written in). The story was first published in The New Yorker, July 1948. It was also included in Nabokov’s Dozen published in 1958. This took me all of two minutes to figure out (and I have no scholastic stink about me). Wood has some other asinine things to say but really after awhile it got rather tedious finding passage after passage that belies everything he writes about certain authors. This is what’s so frustrating about Wood, he is hugely impressive as a line-by-line writer, but he holds grudges against the best, most trailblazing writers of twentieth century literature. I can’t help but wonder why this is. Recently his opinion of David Foster Wallace began ticking up after Wallace passed away. Maybe all Wood needs is Wallace and Nabokov to recede further into the past to see how “alchemical” they really are.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Dusty Myers

    I write realist fiction. Lots of times I'm able to hold onto this as a source of pride, in that I "believe in" realism and what it can accomplish—what it has accomplished for me as a lifelong reader. But lots of other times I understand it as a limitation. I do the best I can, and I can't write anything other that realism. Not with much confidence. When I step up to the plate, so to speak, it's a swing and miss. Given the chance, I'd have a young man wake up one morning and find he'd metamorphose I write realist fiction. Lots of times I'm able to hold onto this as a source of pride, in that I "believe in" realism and what it can accomplish—what it has accomplished for me as a lifelong reader. But lots of other times I understand it as a limitation. I do the best I can, and I can't write anything other that realism. Not with much confidence. When I step up to the plate, so to speak, it's a swing and miss. Given the chance, I'd have a young man wake up one morning and find he'd metamorphosed into a shoebox, or envision a future where Quebecois separatists wheel around on unicycles. James Wood's book, then, was very good for me to read. Not that he has anything disparaging to say about nonrealist fiction—to the contrary, any fiction that does the work of creating life, in all its known and unknown manifestations, is what he's trying to uncover here—but he's very good at showing how difficult and how rewarding is the attempt of building a character and getting a reader to feel herself inside that character's consciousness. Wood is smart to bury his chapters on language and dialogue in the middle of his book, because such are the things it's the easiest to get right. It's easy in a fiction workshop to go to work on what's been written with a toolbox of techniques. Writing prettily takes only a good ear, which might be the first writer-body-part that develops in full (consider Orwell's stages of self-development as a writer; after sheer ego, wanting to craft perfected prose was his most rudimentary desire). But what do you do when all the techniques are in place in a story and the prose is crafted and the story is simply boring, or the characters pose and perform more than they live and breathe? Such stories seem to evince a lack of psychology, or maybe philosophy. There's a often palpable sense in great novels that their writers know not just characters but people, humans, so well that throughout our reading we're forced constantly to go "Ah" and "Oh" like we do when fireworks explode. The best chapters in this regard might be "A Brief History of Consciousness", where Wood traces the Bible's complete refusal of its readers' engagement in characters' minds, through Shakespeare's clunky soliloquies, to the novel (Flaubert, mostly) where we get full accounts of the way people think; and "Sympathy and Complexity", where he tries to uncover the ways authors get us to extend our sympathies to people who don't even exist, and how this practice enables us to do the same to those who do. And then this final paragraph, which I'll quote in full: "Realism, seen broadly as truthfulness to the way things are, cannot be mere verisimilitude, cannot be mere lifelikeness, or lifesameness, but what I must call lifeness: life on the page, life brought to different life by the highest artistry. And it cannot be a genre; instead, it makes other forms of fiction seem like genres. For realism of this kind—lifeness—is the origin. It teaches everyone else; it schools its own truants: it is what allows magical realism, hysterical realism, fantasy, science fiction, even thrillers, to exist. It is nothing like as naive as its opponents charge; almost all the great twentieth-century realist novels also reflect on their own making, and are full of artifice. All the greatest realists, from Austen to Alice Munro, are at the same time great formalists. But this will be unceasingly difficult: for the writer has to act as if the available novelistic methods are continually about to turn in mere convention and so has to try to outwit that inevitable aging. The true writer, that free servant of life, is one who must always be acting as if life were a category beyond anything the novel had yet grasped; as if life itself were always on the verge of becoming conventional" (italics mine). We've all read realist fiction that is dead on every page, and then we extend this deadness to the genre as a whole. The hard part, Wood says, is to accomplish all that realism can in a way that seems fresh and new, and it's such a hard task that it's very tempting to toss realism out altogether, and allow surrealism or lyricism to stand in for novels' pursuit of novelty.

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