How Fiction Works

How Fiction Works

by James Wood


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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 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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312428471
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 07/21/2009
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 162,240
Product dimensions: 4.58(w) x 7.18(h) x 0.78(d)

About the Author

JAMES WOOD is a staff writer at The New Yorker and a visiting lecturer at Harvard. He is the author of two essay collections, The Broken Estate and The Irresponsible Self, and a novel, The Book Against God.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One




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.

All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents


A Note on Footnotes and Dates,
Flaubert and Modern Narrative,
Flaubert and the Rise of the Flaneur,
A Brief History of Consciousness,
Sympathy and Complexity,
Truth, Convention, Realism,

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How Fiction Works 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 31 reviews.
Nodosaurus on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book provides discusses fiction and provides an analysis of the tools to make it effective. James Wood talks primarily about the point of view and voice. He does a comparative analysis of different styles and makes frequent and effective use of examples. Throughout the book, he talks about the tension between the narrator and the characters, how the author can use time, character development and conversation, and on. He never completely leaves a topic, as he will remind us in later sections of those earlier elements and how they are being used in conjunction with the current topics. The book provides a great deal of information, more than can easily be absorbed in its reading. I feel to book had given me new tools for the analysis of literature, and whetted my appetite for more information.
upstairsgirl on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is sort of a horrible little book, irritating and baffling, but, at least, slightly less sexist than I was afraid it was going to be. James Wood has the vocabulary and the academic background to get away with writing a book like this, despite his patchy record as an actual writer of fiction, but it comes across as a bizarre exercise that can't decide if it's literary criticism or metaphysics or both.Wood, who is obviously very well read in both fiction and criticism, is nonetheless chasing his tail, verbally, for the first hundred pages of the book, asking such useless questions as whether you can talk about characters like they're actual people, traveling over and over the origins and progression of realism as an ideology without making much of a point beyond "some people thought it was great, and other people didn't really, and sometimes those people were the same people, and also Flaubert Barthes Flaubert Nabokov Barthes Proust." About halfway through, Wood seems to actually have caught his own tail, narratively speaking, but he doesn't ever seem to realize that the tail he's caught is attached to his own hind end.The result is a frustrating book; a few really sharp insights are buried in a navel-gazing critical babble that never seems as if it's going to end, quotations from the masters interspersed with passages that Wood has penned himself to function as illustrations of the concepts he discusses. These are objectively terrible. I've come away without any clear idea of how Wood actually thinks fiction works, without a clear understanding of the history of the novel that Wood has tried to lay out, and without any respect for the esoteric question of whether what happens in books is real or not. This is more of a critical misadventure than a discussion intended to aid individuals who actually craft fiction, though I think Wood's bibliography is quite good, and one could do much worse than to read and study the authors he cites.
kvanuska on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Sometimes I prefer to let the hype die away before I open a book. When How Fiction Works was released last summer, I saw more than a few snide references to this being the book all writers and wannabees would be reading. Though I don't always have the same take as Wood on books, I think his insights are invaluable and a necessary part of the discourse about fiction. Sadly, How Fiction Works feels all but forgotten now that winter has arrived. That makes me even happier that I saved it for my last book of 2008. It truly is a gem that I will put on the shelf next to Forster's Aspects of the Novel and Flannery O'Connor's Mystery and Manners and to which I will return whenever I'm "stuck" on a review, or on a tricky piece of editing of my own fiction. Though deceptively easy to read, his ideas provide quite a feast for the mind. Wood's discourses on narrating, detail, and most especially character were quite delicious. I've had great difficulty in the concept of flat and round characters since my MFA days and this concept kept coming up as a benchmark for deciding whether a piece of fiction worked or not. I, like Wood, have been bothered by Forster's slotting of characters into flat or round cubbies. Every time I've tried to pigeonhole a character in that way, they've escaped. Here's an excerpt from Wood. Reading it made me feel as though I've been invited in from the cold. Now, if only I could go back to one of those workshops armed with Wood and show those flat-rounders a thing or too. "The novel is the great virtuoso of exceptionalism: it always wriggles out of the rules thrown around it. And the novelistic character is the very Houdini of that exceptionalism. There is no such thing as 'a novelistic character.' There are just thousands of different kinds of people, some round, some flat, some deep, some caricatures, some realistically evoked, some brushed in with the lightest of strokes. ... there are scores of fictional characters who are not fully or conventionally evoked who are also alive and vivid."
MeditationesMartini on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Okay, I'm trying not to be too English-gradstudenty about this, and mostly I'm really happy about Wood's eccentric, impressionistic approach, in the old pre-theoretical turn, Woolfian or Forsterian tradition. He even puts the boot into Barthes in a gentle fashion, which is cute. In general, there's a lot to like in this Wood's exploration of how some parts of fiction work that he obviously likes thinking about - free indirect speech, which he describes in a wonderfully clear ad useful way; the tension in realism between mere verisimilitude and the higher truth he calls "lifeness"; collecting the names of authors that are also the names of characters in works by other authors; an amazing untelegraphed Graham Greene parody. But if this sounds like a grab bag, it really is, and this book suffers - I'm NOT gonna say for lack of theory - but for not being anything more than an amiable, occasionally effete, meander.
whitewavedarling on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I have mixed feelings about this one. It was worth my time since it gave me quite a few authors to look up and reminded me why I love some of my favorites, but there were also so many allusions to books that I sometimes felt left out of the Wood's arguments. At the same time, there was plenty of material to get me thinking about writing strategies that made the read worthwhile; my only complaint would be that sometimes his thoughts seemed painfully obvious, while at others they seemed somewhat undeveloped. It is extremely readable, though, and broken into small sections that make the book more easily digestable, along with making it a simple task to find chapter-bites or sound-bites on certain materials that you might want to take into a class or group discussion.I'd recommend this to folks who are interested in writing fiction or expanding their literary horizons, as well as folks who are fans of the classics and literary fiction (as opposed to more acceptably mainstream). I also think it's more paletable in small doses and taken as breaks instead of in long sittings; I kept it on my desk at work for those ten or fifteen minute stretches when there's no sense in starting a large task, but no sense either in just sitting still for the duration; Wood's short short chapters make the book ideal for that sort of reading.
jburlinson on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Does the typography on the dust cover mean something special? On the hardcover edition, the word works is in italics (although it's not specially designated on the title page or on the cover of the paperback edition, for that matter.) Is there a reason? At first, I thought this signified either (or both) of one or two things: (1) what are the intricate mechanisms that power a piece of fiction, the cogs, bolts, drive shafts, etc. and how do these components come together to get that piece of fiction whizzing along, or (2) how much, and what kind of, sheer effort goes into the production of fiction, the sweat, the tears, the agony, et cetera. Woods does spend quite a bit of time on the former (although not in any part icular systematic or, dreadful word, theoretical way) with just a few glances at the latter. What his preface, though, seems to say is that how can the reading (or writing, I suppose) of fiction "work" for us in making us a better person? Not necssarilfy a nicer person, but a more perceptive, thoughtful, imaginative person. If this is the case, his style and his strategy are perfectly adequate. Normally, when reading Wood's reviews in the New Yorker, I get the sense of having to penetrate writing that is the result of a student's attempt to translate a fuzzy original in some Serbain language into English. This book is much, much better than that. Not to beat around the bush any longer, I liked it pretty well.
seidchen on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
While "How Fiction Works" does not claim to be an exhaustive survey of world fiction (it doesn¿t confine itself to fiction written in English, or, for that matter, strictly to prose), this book does engage in an ongoing conversation about reading fiction as well as writing it, and Wood makes his contributions in an accessible format and a voice by turns authoritative and charmingly effusive. I am not nearly as enthralled as Wood is by his argument that modern narrative begins with Flaubert, but this assertion does provide a useful framing device for his discussions of a wide range of works. His main topics of narration, detail, character, language, dialogue, and classification of fiction are broken into brief segments (and are printed in surprisingly large type).The structural looseness of Wood¿s admittedly ¿little volume¿ is surely influenced by his focus on ¿only the books I actually own¿the books at hand in my study.¿This personal preference may account for some notable omissions. Foremost, to me, is Wood¿s neglect of the short form. He does make frequent reference to Chekhov and attends briefly to Katherine Mansfield's stories, but he overlooks some masters of short fiction, notably Eudora Welty, William Trevor and Alice Munro (though Munro merits a passing mention). Wood¿s helpful unpacking of E.M. Forster¿s categorization of ¿round¿ and ¿flat¿ characters may have benefitted from a discussion of the rules that short stories establish as distinct from novels. Similarly, while Wood ventures into the terrain of contemporary fiction¿he gives a most satisfying critique of a sloppy passage from Updike¿s Terrorist¿he is relatively tied to the canon and, despite his many nods to Virginia Woolf, to male writers. Also in terms of scope, Wood turns, briefly and rather reluctantly, to the Pandora¿s box of genre fiction in the final chapter ¿Truth, Convention, Realism,¿ principally to deride genres as ¿commercial realism¿ and, as such, an extension of commercial cinema. While I¿m not a fan of either, it is difficult to accept as more than merely dismissive his claim that the ¿efficiency¿ of genres ¿takes what it needs from the much less efficient Flaubert or Isherwood, and throws away what made those writers truly alive.¿ Surely a more sophisticated inquiry into form and genre is merited (Wood having in the same section also introduced a comparison with formalist poetry in a similarly offhand manner), and I wonder what Wood makes of writers such as Michael Chabon who explicitly play with expectations established by genre. In this way, the book ends on odd footing, entangled in theory and rebutting ¿complaints against realism,¿ which may have more usefully framed more of his arguments throughout.These charges, though, actually speak to Wood¿s strength: this book invites conversation. Wood¿s meander through his bookshelves enacts a love for the particularities of writing with which the reader can¿t help but identify. You will find here no iron-clad linguistic or stylistic rules, but an astute analysis of how each choice suits a particular purpose¿how the authorial voice clings to that of a character, then distances itself, to simultaneously encourage and withhold sympathy; how varying time signatures achieve a modern cinematic effect; how passive voice, far from an unconscious defect, reinforces the ¿comically gentle¿ nature of a character. Bearing out the title¿s promise, Wood is at his best when engaged in close reading that demonstrates precisely how a passage works in a particular way.Even Wood¿s footnoted digressions on self-plagiarism and allegorical names, which can seem like self-important literary travelogues, have some inherent interest and are quickly outweighed by fascinating insights, such as (for the non-French speaker) his speculation that the French obsession with narrative and realism derives from the preterite, a past tense in French used, never in speech, but solely in writing. Wood analyzes with remarkable clarity, a
debnance on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I have the same criticism of this book as I have about recent books on education; Wood writes as if he is revealing scientific truth rather than quite changeable theory and opinion. And, I hate to tell him, but his book is nothing but one man¿s opinions. It may be that all the heads are nodding along with Wood right now, but this, too, will pass. Wood writes beautifully himself and his thoughts are full of lovely metaphors and clever insights. But is this the truth revealed for all time? No. Just a nice book with lots of interesting twists and turns on other people¿s writings.
carka on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book was drier than I expected...I thought it'd be more like Anna Quindlin's, more like a memoir of fiction. Instead it's more of a textbook on fiction writing ... the craft of writing fiction ... on such topics as realism versus convention, on dialogue, on point of view. I did learn a bit about writing, but since I'm not really pursuing a writing career, it wasn't as applicable to me. I did find myself marking certain pages to remember and was grabbed by certain quotes of his. One was a reflection that the books he dutifully marked as an undergrad, highlighting terms of importance, seem to have missed the mark. He says that most young people trying to be writers haven't read enough literature to be able to do so. I found that interesting, and perhaps is a main reason why I return to books years later. Sometimes I'm disappointed and other times, I gain an even deeper appreciation for the text, now that I have the added wisdom and experience to complement it.
Mazidi on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
You don't have to know how a car works in order to enjoy driving it. Likewise, you don't have to know how novels work in order to enjoy reading them. Having said that, some people enjoy taking a peek under the hood. James Wood's "How Fiction Works" takes such a peek and explores the various systems that come together to make a novel: point of view, character development, selection of detail, and so on. The book is not pedantic in tone although it teaches well. I found myself taking several pages of notes. Wood teaches point of view and detail by sharing short passages that illustrate his point. He shows us what the author is doing, and how he/she is doing it (or not quite). The section on character development was less specific, and I did not get a lot out of this section. The next section on the development of consciousness was superb, as Wood traces the development of consciousness through the tales of David, MacBeth and Raskolnikov. At the back of a book is a bibliography of books Wood used in this work, taken from his own library. In reading over the list, I realized I had read a good number of the works. I would like to add most of the remaining books to my "to-read" list. You do not have to have read all of the books to understand the points he makes, he gives you enough of a passage to get the idea. However, it is an interesting reading list. I did not always agree with Wood's analysis, and this is natural given the subjective nature of response to art. For example in talking of detail, Wood relates a scene from a Chekhov story in which, after making love to his mistress, a man eats a slice of watermelon for half an hour. Wood finds this detail perplexing and superfluous. I have not read that story (yet) but I think there are many possible things that Chekhov is saying here: that the man has a great appetite for both food and sex, or that the man took more care and attention devouring the flesh of the watermelon than he did making love to his woman. The primary benefit of this book to a lover of fiction is an increased appreciation for the craft of writing. It's like taking a walk through an art museum with someone who has devoted their life to studying the techniques of great artists. They see on a different level, and their insights add depth and enjoyment to your experience.
Karlus on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I have just finished How Fiction Works and it now has pride of place among the several books I have owned and explored on the subject. In short, it is excellent. Wood has a keen eye for the written word and an easy, readable style for explaining what is on the printed page and how it functions to enhance the readers appreciation and enjoyment of his reading. It seems to me that it is written from a readerly point of view, even though he claims that it is for writers as well as readers. The fous however is how the reader sees the narrative and is affected by it. He begins the book with a clear explanation of the syntax of 'free indirect discourse' that was all new to me, and he shows clear examples of its use and purposes in advancing the narrative of the story. With that technical background out of the way, and at the ready for future and frequent use, he embarks on the more usual topics for explaining writing: the origins of modern narrative style; detail; character; consciousness; sympathy and complexity; language and dialogue; and finallly, truth and reality. Wood acknowledges that "E. M. Forsters Aspects of The Novel, published in 1927, is canonical for good reason, but now seems imprecise" and one can see that Wood is out to have his own turn at improving that imprecision, while covering similar topics. His keen gaze is fixed on what he calls the old questions: "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 a point of view and how does it work? What is imaginative sympathy? Why does fiction move us?" He expresses the hope that "this book might be one that asks theoretical questions, but answers them practically." To my mind, he succeeds admirably with his sharp instead of diffuse answers to these pointed questions. His ultimate aim throughout is "to talk about the real" because the realism he sees as the objective of writing is ultimately what underlies other genres and "allows magical realism, hysterical realism, fantasy, science fiction, and even thrillers to exit." To all questions he considers, he brings a clear eye and freshness of expression to make his points clear. A metaphor is an 'outburst of fiction' in the midst of fiction; an object is vividly described, not by achieving verisimilitude, but by expressing its 'thisness'; just as reality is achieved, again not by replica likeness, but by expressing its 'lifeness.' And finally what differentiates character is not roundness versus flatness, as in Forster's well-known terms, but subtlety -- Wood's term.Reading this book is an exhilirating experience that brings the written page to a reader's attention in a different way than I have seen before. Moreover, one can carry its clearly explained insights over to one's own reading. In reading How Fiction Works, one will have learned from it and enahnced one's own future enjoyments, and I can think of no better recommendation. By all means, read the book!
Scribbler1 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
For those of us without an arts background, who haven¿t had the pleasure of endless hours spent in lecture theaters and classes reading and scrutinizing the classics, this book offers a captivating glimpse into the mind of a literary critic and novelist. Mr. Wood possesses a keenly observant eye and writes his essays with a clear reverence for fiction. He takes the magnifying glass to the text, much as a scientist might a microscope to the cell. It is not only dissecting analysis that is offered here, but a philosophy of literature that is both heartwarming and thought provoking.
peterwall on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Wood has strong ideas about the blend and interaction between the voices of authors and those of their fictional characters. He admires most the authors who can write fiction that follows its own conventions faithfully by signaling the different voices without breaking a self-imposed aesthetic. And aesthetics may be the most important factor in Wood's evaluation. We should be able to take written fiction as we find it and evaluate it on its own terms, but authors who fail to grasp and commit to a consistent aesthetic within a work make it difficult for readers to do that.Readers whose chief interactions with a book are to determine whether they are "entertained," whether they "like the characters," and whether "the plot is believable" may see Wood as just another snobbish aesthete that revels in a lack of what they might call "clarity" ("Why should the meaning of the story be indeterminate or encoded? Why not just come out and say what happened?"). But those interested in plumbing the depths of language and all its most artful employments should find enlightenment, or at least enjoyment, with Wood and How Fiction Works. For the others, do try¿it may tarnish your love for what Wood calls "commercial realism," but it will add more potential dimensions to your enjoyment of a text than perhaps you thought possible.
jasonlf on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A useful comparison for this book is Aaron Copeland's classic What To Listen For in Music. Like that book, James Wood breaks down the different pieces of telling a fictional story from the narration to the dialogue to the characters. Unlike Copeland, however, this book is less about building up from first principals to a symphony and more about the at times idiosyncratic views of Woods. Although he's an excellent critic, his taste is somewhat different than mine -- running to the more carefully styled Flaubert over the more robust Dickens.Substantial parts of this book are quite interesting and informative and help you, as the title says, understand "How fiction works." And Woods does a good job making it feel like a coherent book rather than a collection of essays by bringing back themes and examples over and over again and building on his previous analysis.That said, large portions of it were considerably less interesting, which I suspect is more my fault than Wood's.
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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