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How Fiction Works Reprint Edition

80 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0312428471
ISBN-10: 0312428472
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Editorial Reviews Review

Amazon Best of the Month, July 2008: The first thing you'll notice about How Fiction Works is its size. At 252 pages, it's a marvel of economy for a book that asks such a huge question and right away you'll want to know (as you might at the start of a new novel) what the author has in store. James Wood takes only his own bookshelves as his literary terrain for this study, and that in itself is the most delightful gift: he joins his audience as a reader, citing his chosen texts judiciously--ranging from Henry James (from whom he takes the best epigraph to a book I've ever read) to Nabokov, Joyce, Updike, and more--to explore not just how fiction works, mechanically speaking, but to reflect on how a novelist's choices make us feel that a novel ultimately works ... or doesn't. Wood remarks that you have to "read enough literature to be taught by it how to read it." His terrific bibliography will surely be a boon to anyone's education, but it's his masterful writing that you'll want to keep reading over the course of your life. --Anne Bartholomew

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Wood takes aim at E.M. Forster's longtime standard-bearer Aspects of the Novel in 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 Theater as 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 Yorker and 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. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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This Book Is Bound with "Deckle Edge" Paper
You may have noticed that some of our books are identified as "deckle edge" in the title. Deckle edge books are bound with pages that are made to resemble handmade paper by applying a frayed texture to the edges. Deckle edge is an ornamental feature designed to set certain titles apart from books with machine-cut pages. See a larger image.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Picador; Reprint edition (July 21, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312428472
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312428471
  • Product Dimensions: 4.7 x 0.8 x 7.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (80 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #47,497 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

136 of 153 people found the following review helpful By Charlus on July 22, 2008
Format: Hardcover
James Wood conducts a concise but edifying tour behind the curtain of novel making, aimed primarily at the student and interested layperson. He examines the techniques used by the novelist that readers routinely take for granted. By spotlighting and defamiliarizing them, he demonstrates how they have evolved over the centuries, including examples of both good and bad usage.

Topics include free indirect style, the conciousness of characters, reality in fiction, successful use of metaphor and simile, different registers of tone, among others.

One of his most interesting discussions is on characters: how have different writers approached creating characters, including a history of critical responses to those approaches.

This is typical of Wood's modus operandi: take a basic component of novel writing and examine the assumptions we make as readers in order to understand and use what we are reading; what are the conventions writers and readers have evolved, and how did they come into being. Wood's style here is mostly shorn of the metaphors that illuminate his prior collections of criticism; the writing is invariably clear and succinct.

My only disappointment was in his episodic inability to refrain from revealing key plot points (i.e. Anna and the train) that may diminish the pleasure for future readers.

This is the best book I know to make one a more observant and appreciative reader.
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224 of 281 people found the following review helpful By Susan Wise Bauer on January 28, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Too much micro-analysis, too little attention to the whole; too much scorn for the "popular," too much delight in his own prose ("Nearly all of Muriel Spark's novels are fiercely composed and devoutly starved"), way too much jargon ("Characterological relativity"? Really?).

Wood is intensely interested in small things. In use of detail, in single phrases and sentences, in rhythm and vocabulary. Which is fine, and I gave the book two stars instead of one because he makes useful observations about the construction of prose. His section on "The Rise of Detail" was particularly good, and I plan on rereading and making use of it.

But he pays no attention to the entire novel. He spends page after page after page rhapsodising about single sentences and details. Saul Bellow's description of flying, he enthuses, tells the reader exactly what flying feels like. "And yet until this moment one did not have these words to fit this feeling. Until this moment, one was comparatively inarticulate; until this moment, one had been blandly inhabiting a deprived eloquence." (Yep, that's been my entire experience of flying up to this point. I blandly inhabit a deprived eloquence.) What the entire novel does, why we might read it, what effect the whole sweep of it might have on us, and (most important for a book called How Fiction Works) how the writer constructed it-all of these things are ignored.

He's also a snob. He loathes something he calls "commercial realism," a style which "lays down a grammar of intelligent, stable, transparent storytelling," and instead praises the obscure, the high, and the literary. Plot he dismisses as unnecessary-unless your reader is slow and uninterested in real fiction.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By farington on October 19, 2009
Format: Paperback
This book isn't a comprehensive, systematic treatise on fiction, despite the promise of the title and the almost obsessive organization of the contents into numerous chapters and sections, many of them only a few pages long. Actually, I wonder how seriously Wood takes all this, delivering impossibly ambitious chapter headings like "A Brief History of Consciousness" when the chapter's less than ten pages long. Anyway, the book's really more of a collection of essays containing some interesting observations about fiction, worth a read, but not a re-read. High points include the discussions on descriptive technique, narrative voice, and how the Russians were fundamental to the development of novelistic character as we know it. My main disappointment is that Wood has been making the rounds talking about how contemporary fiction is stuck in the mud of "realism", and I was hoping for an enlightening discussion of this; I was expecting more examples of the work of contemporary "post-realist" authors just in case I found Wood's "post-realist" world of literature interesting enough to pursue further. I'm happy to go along with the idea that a novel doesn't need a plot (though I would never describe plot as "juvenile", as Wood does). But when I reached the chapter on this topic, I found Wood lapsing into uninformative and quizzical generalizations. What's "real"?, he asks; you can have all manner of narrative, even the fantastic and dreamlike, which nevertheless can seem "real"; actually, the problem with contemporary fiction isn't "realism", because "realism" (i.e.Read more ›
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16 of 19 people found the following review helpful By David M. Giltinan on November 28, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Points in this book's favor -

It's short, and very readable. In the introduction, Wood promises to be "mindful of the common reader" and to try to "reduce .. the scholastic stink to bearable levels". He does a commendable job of keeping his promise.

Wood's enthusiasm for reading is evident throughout, and is infectious. The strongest aspect of the book are the many specific examples that Wood provides of what works and doesn't work in fiction. Refreshingly, the ratio of positive to negative examples is high, so that we are treated to eloquence inspired by enthusiasm, rather than critical disregard, for the most part. His insights on Chekhov, Joyce, Nabokov (to name just a few) prompt me to go back and (re)read the work in question.

On the other hand:

Although I didn't find Wood's style overtly pompous, there is an inescapable sense that one is reading dispatches from what Walter Kirn, in his wicked New York Times review, refers to as "someone who has attained the detached, big-picture perspective of an orbiting critical satellite". In other words, a slightly offputting air of detached omniscience - that one is reading tablets handed down from the mountain.

Wood displays an enthusiasm for Flaubert (and, to a lesser extent, Henry James) that borders on burbling adulation. There's nothing wrong with this, of course, but when coupled with what appears to be a blanket dislike for almost everything even remotely postmodern, one begins to feel that Wood might be a helpful guide only for a certain subclass of fiction. David Foster Wallace, for example, gets dissed several times throughout the book, with little recognition of his considerable talent and influence.
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