How Fiction Works

By JAMES WOOD

At its modest best, James Wood?s first book-length study reasserts an idea that most average readers already assume: that literature is a reflection and imitation of reality, that art connects us to the world, and that style serves as our best measure of that connection. Of course, literary academics, for the most part, deny most of these once commonplace notions. And Wood — one of the most celebrated and controversial writers on fiction currently working — isn?t exactly sure who his audience is for this otherwise sensible and cleanly written meditation. Make no mistake: far from a how-to or beginner’s guide to fiction, this collection of 123 little pieces ranges from instructive anecdotes to head-on engagements with some heavyweight critical theorists. This impressive range produces its own drawback — Wood maintains multiple levels of diction that will confuse those expecting the graceful style on display in so many of his much-admired essays.

Wood begins on steady ground, asking the basic, admittedly “old” questions about the art of fiction: “Is realism real? How do we define a successful metaphor? What is a character? When do we recognize a brilliant use of detail in fiction? What is point of view, and how does it work? What is imaginative sympathy? Why does fiction move us?” Despite some meanderings, Wood addresses all these issues with explanations that nicely popularize the more academic responses of sympathetic scholars such as Wayne Booth, Erich Auerbach, and Gerald Graff, none of whom are cited in this often idiosyncratic book. Wood prefers to deal with two of his “favorite twentieth-century critics of the novel”: the Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky, and the French structuralist Roland Barthes, both of whom Wood considers “wrong-headed.”

So why the extended discussion of Barthes? For one thing, he provides a solid statement of the popular notion (among postmodern theorists) that literature has no relation to an external reality, that the text is just that, words on a page, a world unto itself. Wood admires Barthes?s interest in style, and it?s true that the French critic?s essays display a virtuosity absent from the work of his deconstructionist compatriots. He writes wonderfully on everything from St. Ignatius to food magazines. But Barthes?s view of literary narrative is anti-realist to its core: nothing “happens” in a novel except the language in that novel, which refers to nothing outside itself. This runs counter to everything Wood rightly believes. In his view, Barthes (along with writers as diverse as William Gass, Rick Moody, and Patrick Giles) considers artifice and convention in fictional narratives to be proof that realism is impossible. Wood counters simply that neither renders fiction untruthful, and that we need more elastic and nuanced views of what constitutes the reality being depicted.

And here, in a way, is the trouble with Wood?s constant references to “life” and “truth” throughout these blog-like entries. While he admits that the notion of a stable, shared truth begins to erode in the 19th century, he seems to rely on transcendent notions of both in the present. That?s not a bad thing, since common readers are likely to agree. We read and measure what we read by our everyday sense of the world around us, and Wood does too. He cites Aristotle, Samuel Johnson, and George Eliot to the effect that (in Eliot?s words) “rt is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow men beyond the bounds of our personal lot.” But Wood wants to satisfy the theorists among his readers as well, and that?s where his failure to enlist critics such as Booth, Graff, or even Lionel Trilling make his calls for “lifeness” in fiction — to see things as they are in the world — ring hollow.

Fortunately, there?s more to this book than theoretical concerns. Wood is at his finest when discussing actual snippets of fiction (and also some bits of plays, poems, movies, and TV shows). His examples draw widely from the canon: Tolstoy, Stendhal, Proust, Mann, James, Woolf, Naipaul, Bellow, and, most extensively, Flaubert, the master stylist, famous for the agonizing care with which he wrote. It was Flaubert, after all, who rejected earlier notions of a directly realistic style, with its more arbitrary concern for detail. The key to modern narrative, in Wood?s view, is the “free indirect style” that floats away from a controlling author or a first-person narrator and seems to attach to characters. In modern fiction, we need to ask, who is the controlling consciousness of the prose? Or as Wood puts it, who “owns the words”? And he considers passages from Henry James and John Updike that demonstrate how an author relates to his characters. In Updike?s case, in The Terrorist, overwrought prose often gets between us and his simple characters, while in James?s What Maisie Knew, the author seems to disappear, allowing us to experience the fictional reality unimpeded.

Wood further shines in his discussions of novelistic detail and language; his own formalist tendencies serve him well. His riff on the line “The day waves yellow with all its crops” from Woolf?s The Waves will remind readers of Wood?s critical essays — it?s a highly personal response grounded in his sense of the real world, and enhanced by beautiful prose of his own. Despite the simplicity of the line, Wood discerns “a yellow semaphore, a sea of moving color” and ends with: “ellowness has conquered our agency. How do we wave? We wave yellow. That is all we can do. The sunlight is so absolute that it stuns us, makes us sluggish, robs us of will. Eight simple words evoke color, high summer, warm lethargy, ripeness.” With theory out of the way, Wood proves an expert reader, alert to style, nuance, and imagination

Perhaps the most useful idea readers will take from this sometimes confusing book is Wood?s notion that great literature teaches us how to read it. We don?t need fancy litcrit or extra-literary ideas about society to appreciate books. Style?s the thing wherein an author makes clear his meanings and intentions, from who?s speaking to the moral issues at play in the work. Style determines the details that are relevant and the revelation of character, and it controls our sympathies. Wood?s style here, or I should say “styles,” range high and low — he can be casual to a fault, and buries some of his best apercus in footnotes. But at his best, Wood testifies to the wonder of the artistic imagination and its ability to enrich our lives.