How Fiction Works

How Fiction Works

by James Wood
3.5 17


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How Fiction Works by James Wood

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: 210,602
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.

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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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.