How Fiction Works

How Fiction Works

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by James Wood

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What makes a story a story? What is style? What’s the connection between realism and real life? These are some of the questions James Wood answers in How Fiction Works, the first book-length essay by the preeminent critic of his generation. Ranging widely—from Homer to David Foster Wallace, from What Maisie Knew to Make Way for

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What makes a story a story? What is style? What’s the connection between realism and real life? These are some of the questions James Wood answers in How Fiction Works, the first book-length essay by the preeminent critic of his generation. Ranging widely—from Homer to David Foster Wallace, from What Maisie Knew to Make Way for Ducklings—Wood takes the reader through the basic elements of the art, step by step.

The result is nothing less than a philosophy of the novel—plainspoken, funny, blunt—in the traditions of E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel and Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. It sums up two decades of insight with wit and concision. It will change the way you read.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Deservedly famous for [his] intellectual dazzle, literary acuteness and moral seriousness . . . Wood writes like a dream.” —Daniel Mendelsohn, The New York Times Book Review

“It is not enough to have one Wood. What is needed is a thicket—a forest—of Woods . . . [He proves] that superior criticism not only unifies and interprets a literary culture but has the power to imagine it into being.” —Cynthia Ozick, Harper’s Magazine

Christopher Tilghman
Wood's models for the "best" in fiction will not surprise either his admirers or his detractors. He has his contemporary favorites, but the models are the masters: Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, James and above all, never far from view, Flaubert. He tells us in his preface that the book "asks theoretical questions but answers them practically," and by practical, he means analysis of techniques as illustrated by a series of generally superb line-by-line readings. This is a technical book, a primer of sorts, of interest to the practicing writer but probably most useful and illuminating for the serious reader who enjoys the fictive ride and wants to take a look under the hood.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

Wood takes aim at E.M. Forster's longtime standard-bearer Aspects of the Novelin this eminently readable and thought-provoking treatise on the ways, whys and hows of writing and reading fiction. Wood addresses many of the usual suspects—plot, character, voice, metaphor—with a palpable passion (he denounces a verb as "pompous" and praises a passage from Sabbath's Theateras "an amazingly blasphemous little mélange"), and his inviting voice guides readers gently into a brief discourse on "thisness" and "chosenness," leading up to passages on how to "push out," the "contagion of moralizing niceness" and, most importantly, a new way to discuss characters. Wood dismisses Forster's notions of flat or round characters and suggests that characters be evaluated in terms of "transparencies" and "opacities" determined not by the reader's expectations of how a character may act (as in Forster's formula), but by a character's motivations. Wood, now at the New Yorkerand arguably the pre-eminent critic of contemporary English letters, accomplishes his mission of asking "a critic's questions and offer[ing] a writer's answers" with panache. This book is destined to be marked up, dog-eared and cherished. (Aug.)

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Library Journal

Serious readers of fiction will tackle this informing and enlightening new work with unrestrained relish. A staff writer at The New Yorker, Wood (American literature, Harvard Univ.; The Book Against God) asks all the right questions: What is character, point of view, the value of metaphor and simile, and detail? Is it all artifice or realism, or could it be labeled imaginative truth? His engaging discussion covers narration in all its forms, the impersonal author, the tension that exists between an author's and a character's style, flat vs. round characters, irony, and more. Wood uses excerpts from works by notable authors, from Miguel Cervantes and Jane Austen to Saul Bellow and John Updike, to illustrate his statements with pinpoint precision. Whether he is commenting on a work's weakness or strength, he supports his opinion with reasoned scholarship. Great fiction has what Wood calls "lifeness." Ditto for this book, whose footnotes are as engrossing as the narrative. Highly recommended for public and academic libraries.
—Robert Kelly

Kirkus Reviews
New Yorker staff writer Wood (Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel, 2004, etc.) channels E.M. Forster's classic Aspects of the Novel in a book-length analysis of the techniques that make fiction "both artifice and verisimilitude."Adopting an enthusiast's approach, the author examines classic and contemporary aesthetic choices, citing the works of several dozen favorite authors, including precursors of fiction (Homer, Shakespeare, Cervantes), consensus masters (Flaubert, Tolstoy, Austen, Henry James, Chekhov, Stendhal) and eminences still practicing (V.S. Naipaul, J.M. Coetzee, Jose Saramago, Ian McEwan). Wood occasionally gushes, as in his consideration of "free indirect style . . . [which allows us to] see things though . . . the character's eyes and language but also through the author's." But he quickly composes himself, rebuking John Updike and Saul Bellow for allowing authorial mind-sets to infiltrate a character's habits of thinking and speaking (in the former's Terrorist and the latter's Seize the Day). There follows a superb discussion of "Real and Literary Detail," emphasizing "the moment when a single detail has suddenly enabled us to see a character's thinking." The centrality of characterization in the modern novel is linked to the interest of certain masters (notably Dostoevsky) in making psychological complexity dramatically interesting. In a parallel argument, Wood examines how rhythm and momentum are established through the skillful manipulation of simple everyday language (as in the best of D.H. Lawrence). Wood's unalloyed delight in the achievements of the finest writers of fiction leads him to a closely reasoned and impassioned rejection of the ignorantcanard claiming that realistic fiction is dead. Highly stimulating stuff-if it doesn't make you hug your bookcase gratefully, you're probably an incorrigible "formalist-cum-structuralist."

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How Fiction Works

By James Wood
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Copyright © 2008

James Wood
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-374-17340-1

Chapter One Narrating


The house of fiction has many windows, but only two or three doors. I can tell a story in the third person or in the first person, and perhaps in the second person singular, or in the first person plural, though successful examples of these latter two are rare indeed. And that is it. Anything else probably will not much resemble narration; it may be closer to poetry, or prose-poetry.


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 omniscience) and unreliable narration (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 Svevo's narrator, Zeno Cosini, or Bertie Wooster. Authorial omniscience, people assume, has had its day, much as that "vast, moth-eaten musical brocade" called religion has also had its. W. G. Sebald once said to me, "I think that fiction writing which does not acknowledge the uncertainty of the narrator himself is a form of imposture which I find very, very difficult to take. Any form of authorial writing where the narrator sets himself up as stagehand and director and judge and executor in a text, I find somehow unacceptable. I cannot bear to read books of this kind." Sebald continued: "If you refer to Jane Austen, you refer to a world where there were set standards of propriety which were accepted by everyone. Given that you have a world where the rules are clear and where one knows where trespassing begins, then I think it is legitimate, within that context, to be a narrator who knows what the rules are and who knows the answers to certain questions. But I think these certainties have been taken from us by the course of history, and that we do have to acknowledge our own sense of ignorance and of insufficiency in these matters and therefore to try and write accordingly."


For Sebald, and for many writers like him, standard third-person omniscient narration is a kind of antique cheat. But both sides of this division have been caricatured.


Actually, first-person narration is generally more reliable than unreliable; and third-person "omniscient" narration is generally more partial than omniscient.

The first-person narrator is often highly reliable; Jane Eyre, a highly reliable first-person narrator, for instance, tells us her story from a position of belated enlightenment (years later, married to Mr. Rochester, she can now see her whole life story, rather as Mr. Rochester's eyesight is gradually returning at the end of the novel). Even the apparently unreliable narrator is more often than not reliably unreliable. Think of Kazuo Ishiguro's butler in The Remains of the Day, or of Bertie Wooster, or even of Humbert Humbert. We know that the narrator is being unreliable because the author is alerting us, through reliable manipulation, to that narrator's unreliability. A process of authorial flagging is going on; the novel teaches us how to read its narrator.

Unreliably unreliable narration is very rare, actually-about as rare as a genuinely mysterious, truly bottomless character. The nameless narrator of Knut Hamsun's Hunger is highly unreliable, and finally unknowable (it helps that he is insane); Dostoevsky's narrator in Notes from Underground is the model for Hamsun. Italo Svevo's Zeno Cosini may be the best example of truly unreliable narration. He imagines that by telling us his life story he is psychoanalyzing himself (he has promised his analyst to do this). But his self-comprehension, waved confidently before our eyes, is as comically perforated as a bullet-holed flag.


On the other side, omniscient narration is rarely as omniscient as it seems. To begin with, authorial style generally has a way of making third-person omniscience seem partial and inflected. Authorial style tends to draw our attention toward the writer, toward the artifice of the author's construction, and so toward the writer's own impress. Thus the almost comic paradox of Flaubert's celebrated wish that the author be "impersonal," Godlike, and removed, in contrast with the high personality of his very style, those exquisite sentences and details, which are nothing less than God's showy signatures on every page: so much for the impersonal author. Tolstoy comes closest to a canonical idea of authorial omniscience, and he uses with great naturalness and authority a mode of writing that Roland Barthes called "the reference code" (or sometimes "the cultural code"), whereby a writer makes confident appeal to a universal or consensual truth, or a body of shared cultural or scientific knowledge.


So-called omniscience is almost impossible. As soon as someone tells a story about a character, narrative seems to want to bend itself around that character, wants to merge with that character, to take on his or her way of thinking and speaking. A novelist's omniscience soon enough becomes a kind of secret sharing; this is called "free indirect style," a term novelists have lots of different nicknames for-"close third person," or "going into character."


a. He looked over at his wife. "She looks so unhappy," he thought, "almost sick." He wondered what to say.

This is direct or quoted speech ("'She looks so unhappy,' he thought") combined with the character's reported or indirect speech ("He wondered what to say"). The old-fashioned notion of a character's thought as a speech made to himself, a kind of internal address.

b. He looked over at his wife. She looked so unhappy, he thought, almost sick. He wondered what to say.

This is reported or indirect speech, the internal speech of the husband reported by the author, and flagged as such ("he thought"). It is the most recognizable, the most habitual, of all the codes of standard realist narrative.

c. He looked at his wife. Yes, she was tiresomely unhappy again, almost sick. What the hell should he say?

This is free indirect speech or style: the husband's internal speech or thought has been freed of its authorial flagging; no "he said to himself" or "he wondered" or "he thought."

Note the gain in flexibility. The narrative seems to float away from the novelist and take on the properties of the character, who now seems to "own" the words. The writer is free to inflect the reported thought, to bend it around the character's own words ("What the hell should he say?"). We are close to stream of consciousness, and that is the direction free indirect style takes in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries: "He looked at her. Unhappy, yes. Sickly. Obviously a big mistake to have told her. His stupid conscience again. Why did he blurt it? All his own fault, and what now?"

You will note that such internal monologue, freed from flagging and quotation marks, sounds very much like the pure soliloquy of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novels (an example of a technical improvement merely renovating, in a circular manner, an original technique too basic and useful-too real-to do without).


Free indirect style is at its most powerful when hardly visible or audible: "Ted watched the orchestra through stupid tears." In my example, the word "stupid" marks the sentence as written in free indirect style. Remove it, and we have standard reported thought: "Ted watched the orchestra through tears." The addition of the word "stupid" raises the question: Whose word is this? It's unlikely that I would want to call my character stupid merely for listening to some music in a concert hall. No, in a marvelous alchemical transfer, the word now belongs partly to Ted. He is listening to the music and crying, and is embarrassed-we can imagine him furiously rubbing his eyes-that he has allowed these "stupid" tears to fall. Convert it back into first-person speech, and we have this: "'Stupid to be crying at this silly piece of Brahms,' he thought." But this example is several words longer; and we have lost the complicated presence of the author.


What is so useful about free indirect style is that in our example a word like "stupid" somehow belongs both to the author and the character; we are not entirely sure who "owns" the word. Might "stupid" reflect a slight asperity or distance on the part of the author? Or does the word belong wholly to the character, with the author, in a rush of sympathy, having "handed" it, as it were, to the tearful fellow?


Thanks to free indirect style, we see things through the character's eyes and language but also through the author's eyes and language. We inhabit omniscience and partiality at once. A gap opens between author and character, and the bridge-which is free indirect style itself-between them simultaneously closes that gap and draws attention to its distance.

This is merely another definition of dramatic irony: to see through a character's eyes while being encouraged to see more than the character can see (an unreliability identical to the unreliable first-person narrator's).


Some of the purest examples of irony are found in children's literature, which often needs to allow a child-or the child's proxy, an animal-to see the world through limited eyes, while alerting the older reader to this limitation. In Robert McCloskey's Make Way for Ducklings, Mr. and Mrs. Mallard are trying out the Boston Public Garden for their new home, when a swan boat (a boat made to look like a swan but actually powered by a pedal-pushing human pilot) passes them. Mr. Mallard has never seen anything like this before. McCloskey falls naturally into free indirect style: "Just as they were getting ready to start on their way, a strange enormous bird came by. It was pushing a boat full of people, and there was a man sitting on its back. 'Good morning,' quacked Mr. Mallard, being polite. The big bird was too proud to answer." Instead of telling us that Mr. Mallard could make no sense of the swan boat, McCloskey places us in Mr. Mallard's confusion; yet the confusion is obvious enough that a broad ironic gap opens between Mr. Mallard and the reader (or author). We are not confused in the same way as Mr. Mallard; but we are also being made to inhabit Mr. Mallard's confusion.


What happens, though, when a more serious writer wants to open a very small gap between character and author? What happens when a novelist wants us to inhabit a character's confusion, but will not "correct" that confusion, refuses to make clear what a state of nonconfusion would look like? We can walk in a straight line from McCloskey to Henry James. There is a technical connection, for instance, between Make Way for Ducklings and James's novel What Maisie Knew. Free indirect style helps us to inhabit juvenile confusion, this time a young girl's rather than a duck's. James tells the story, from the third person, of Maisie Farange, a little girl whose parents have viciously divorced. She is bounced between them, as new governesses, from each parental side, are thrust upon her. James wants us to live inside her confusion, and also wants to describe adult corruption from the eyes of childish innocence. Maisie likes one of her governesses, the plain and distinctly lower-middle-class Mrs. Wix, who wears her hair rather grotesquely, and who once had a little daughter called Clara Matilda, a girl who, at around Maisie's age, was knocked down on the Harrow Road, and is buried in the cemetery at Kensal Green. Maisie knows that her elegant and vapid mother does not think much of Mrs. Wix, but Maisie likes her all the same:

It was on account of these things that mamma got her for such low pay, really for nothing: so much, one day when Mrs. Wix had accompanied her into the drawing-room and left her, the child heard one of the ladies she found there-a lady with eyebrows arched like skipping-ropes and thick black stitching, like ruled lines for musical notes on beautiful white gloves-announce to another. 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; safer 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-goodnight 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.

What a piece of writing this is! So flexible, so capable of inhabiting different levels of comprehension and irony, so full of poignant identification with young Maisie, yet constantly moving in toward Maisie and moving away from her, back toward the author.


James's free indirect style allows us to inhabit at least three different perspectives at once: the official parental and adult judgment on Mrs. Wix; Maisie's version of the official view; and Maisie's view of Mrs. Wix. The official view, overheard by Maisie, is filtered through Maisie's own half-comprehending voice: "It was on account of these things that mamma got her for such low pay, really for nothing." The lady with the arched eyebrows who uttered this cruelty is being paraphrased by Maisie, and paraphrased not especially skeptically or rebelliously, but with a child's wide-eyed respect for authority. James must make us feel that Maisie knows a lot but not enough. Maisie may not like the woman with the arched eyebrows who spoke thus about Mrs. Wix, but she is still in fear of her judgment, and we can hear a kind of excited respect in the narration; the free indirect style is done so well that it is pure voice-it longs to be turned back into the speech of which it is the paraphrase: we can hear, as a sort of shadow, Maisie saying to the kind of friend she in fact painfully lacks, "You know, mamma got her for very low pay because she is very poor and has a dead daughter. I've visited the grave, don't you know!"

So there is the official adult opinion of Mrs. Wix; and there is Maisie's comprehension of this official disapproval; and then, countervailingly, there is Maisie's own, much warmer opinion of Mrs. Wix, who may not be as elegant as her predecessor, Miss Over-more, but who seems much more safe: the purveyor of a uniquely "tucked-in and kissed-for-good-night feeling." (Notice that in the interest of letting Maisie "speak" through his language, James is willing to sacrifice his own stylistic elegance in a phrase like this.)


James's genius gathers in one word: "embarrassingly." That is where all the stress comes to rest. "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." Whose word is "embarrassingly"? It is Maisie's: it is embarrassing for a child to witness adult grief, and we know that Mrs. Wix has taken to referring to Clara Matilda as Maisie's "little dead sister." We can imagine Maisie standing next to Mrs. Wix in the cemetery at Kensal Green-it is characteristic of James's narration that he has not mentioned the place name Kensal Green until now, leaving it for us to work out-we can imagine her standing next to Mrs. Wix and feeling awkward and embarrassed, at once impressed by and a little afraid of Mrs. Wix's grief. And here is the greatness of the passage: Maisie, despite her greater love for Mrs. Wix, stands in the same relation to Mrs. Wix as she stands to the lady with the arched eyebrows; both women cause her some embarrassment. She fully understands neither, even if she uncomprehendingly prefers the former. "Embarrassingly": the word encodes Maisie's natural embarrassment and also the internalized embarrassment of official adult opinion ("My dear, it is so embarrassing, that woman is always taking her up to Kensal Green!").


Excerpted from How Fiction Works by James Wood Copyright © 2008 by James Wood . Excerpted by permission.
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Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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How Fiction Works 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 17 reviews.
mellow More than 1 year ago
This book goes beyond the basics. Great for writers who are at a higher level.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
After borrowing this book twice from the library, I must have my own copy because I keep going back to it. As a writer, I find most books about writing to be fairly useless, telling me things I already know. James Wood's more theoretical (rather than practical) approach to explaining how fiction works is, admittedly, probably of much more use to writers than to readers. So be it. I found his section on "Truth, Convention, Realism" particularly insightful, and he is absolutely right about the challenge we face as writers of realism: "The writer has to act as if the available novelistic methods are continually about to turn into mere convention..."  In response to the two-star rating from KrisPA, I'd like to add that, while Woods' language is undeniably "hoity-toity," he is in fact challenging the most irritating literary snobs who claim that realism itself is a "dead convention." This is utter horsedung, and Wood calls it out for what it is (though he uses the more polite term "nonsense"). That alone won me over. It's also true that his examples are mostly decades if not centuries old. That's because he's drawing on the classics. Our contemporary novels will have their day, but not yet. First they have to stand the test of time. I highly recommend this book for any writer seriously interested in the craft of realistic fiction. 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
One of the most important craft books in my library.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book was recommended reading from a reading class I took from "Great Courses". I have pretty much read the Writer's Digest Book club library of books... must be well over 100 books on writing, to be modest. I wanted to qualify myself because of the low rating. This book is gibberish. Quite literally. How does someone learn to write fiction from someone who can't construct a decent sentence? How Fiction Works is absolutely not worth purchasing at any cost, not even as a free Friday nook book, and I suspect reading it could cause permanent damage to your writing skills and writing aspirations.
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StephenEvans More than 1 year ago
a critic's perspective.
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Litgirl More than 1 year ago
I read this for a class in my MFA program. I found it very helpful in understanding certain aspects of point of view and types of discourse decisions that writers make in the narrative of a given work. Although it was at times dry, it's an informative book and was the subject of several class discussions.
deco More than 1 year ago
KrisPA More than 1 year ago
What's absolutely intriguing to me about this book is that Woods does not discuss any recent fiction. His most current cultural reference is to Seinfeld, a show that ended, what, a decade ago? Woods refers to fiction that many (most?) people don't read today unless they are English majors in college. Even then they don't read them (I was an English major and didn't read most of these authors). Authors such as Flaubert, Shakespeare, Updike, Doestoevsky, Austen, Woolf, Tolstoy, Moliere, Proust, etc. Now, granted, I have read some of these authors and even like them, but he saves most of his praise for authors that I'm sure most of the reading public has never read. I read this whole book and often got lost in his thicket of French words and technical/philosophical literary theories. The majority of it that I did understand, my impression was: who care? For all his theories about how fiction works, particularly the last sections about realism, Woods neglects why fiction really works: the stories. Readers love a good story. We want to be transported from our everyday ho-hum lives into worlds of fantasy, science fiction, spies and thrillers. We want to live other lives. Fiction does this for us. All his high-minded words about "free indirect style" and "character-appropriate metaphors" are directed to readers and perhaps writers who sneer at today's fiction as "commercial realism." Why? Because it is written so people can enjoy it, lose themselves in it, and will actually buy it? Indirectly, this is a book about art, and when does art cease to become art? Because of his dearth of examples of contemporary fiction, I think Woods is implying that any book published after a certain time period is perhaps not art, not literary, and god forbid if more than 20 people buy it and actually read it. This book is also about a matter of taste--what I consider well-written, what sentences thrill me, cause a strong emotion in me, will not cause a strong emotion in you. Many of the examples he cited as beautiful, powerful writing didn't do it for me, particularly Marilynne Robinson's "weedy little mortality patch" from her novel Gilead. Wood swoons over that phrase. My reaction: eh. While this book provides a certain amount of intellectual stimulation, its theories should be discussed in a literary vaccuum--it's so snooty and provides few contemporary literary examples (except to sneer at them), I fail to see the significance of it. Do I think style and dialogue and metaphor and characters are important? Yes. Did Woods adequately explain that importance to me? Not really. This book should be titled: How Fiction Works: Only for the Literary Snobs. The one point he made that struck home was the idea that we (readers) must like our characters. He discusses all the "foolish" reader reviews on complaining about not liking the characters. He calls this a "contagion of moralizing niceness" and he's right. While I like to like my characters, I don't have to. My characters must be interesting and compelling, but not always likeable. However, I have no doubt that Mr. Woods would consider this a "foolish" review too.