“How Fiction Works should delight and enlighten practicing novelists, would-be novelists, and all passionate readers of fiction. . . . Enchanting.” The Economist
“Wood's enthusiasm is glorious . . . a delight. . . . The pleasure in this book lies in watching Wood read.” Time
“An articulate reminder of the framework that is essential to constructing a lasting work of the imagination.” The Miami Herald
“Wood is among the few contemporary writers of great consequence. . . . Reading Wood, no matter the book under review, provides enormous pleasure.” Los Angeles Times
“A fiercely committed critic and consummate stylist.” John Banville, The New York Review of Books
“A perceptive and graceful essay which almost anybody who's interested in books could read . . . Well worth reading.” The Sunday Times (UK)
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
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 suspectsplot, character, voice, metaphorwith 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.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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.
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."