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How Fiction Works [Deckle Edge] [Paperback]

by James Wood
3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (68 customer reviews)

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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.

Book Description

July 21, 2009 0312428472 978-0312428471 Reprint

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.


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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com 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.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Picador; Reprint edition (July 21, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312428472
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312428471
  • Product Dimensions: 7.2 x 4.7 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (68 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #24,432 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
126 of 143 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Magician's Secrets July 22, 2008
By Charlus
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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179 of 225 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Self-important and filled with jargon 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. The novel does not have plot, he implies; it does something much more important.
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123 of 163 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars middlebrow August 3, 2008
By madman
Format:Hardcover
A disappointment. Based on a few print reviews I was expecting something really terrific, and there are four or five nicely turned passages here. But Mr. Wood has a terribly narrow sense of what makes fiction worthwhile, and seems to have no feeling at all for the pleasures of plot or the music of contemporary language. For him it all comes down to the gentlemanly delectation of "fine moments" in novels. One could forgive him this fussiness if it were done exceptionally well, but in fact this book is a kind of inflated pamphlet, with huge margins and large print, which simply strings together some ideas about narration and character. It is a real step down from a delightful book I first read at college in the 1960s and have returned to several times since: Percy Lubbock's The Craft of Fiction, which I'm happy to see is still in print. It is really scandalous that Mr. Wood didn't see fit to mention this forebear from which he borrows so much.
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69 of 94 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover
James Wood's book is largely an engaging read filled with pleasing sentences and often telling illustration. It deals principally with writerly skills, and those particular uses of them which make in novels for the Beautiful. Among the most important of these is the indirect or ironic narrative style whose virtues Wood demonstrates in detail. The author in similar fashion moves on to treat with equivalent freshness such expected areas as characterization and language. Then, toward the end of the book, he turns to the question of the True in novels, and persuasively argues for what he calls "lifeness." Such concerns of Beauty and Truth are of obvious centrality to both the creative writer and the appreciative reader of novels. So far, I'd argue, so good.

The book finally and sadly disappoints, however, and it does so owing to the author's inadequate and stale, if still widely fashionable view of what in novels constitutes the third element in Plato's trinity, the Good. About the freshest Wood gets in his noticeably scant treatment of this topic is a twice repeated quotation from George Eliot on how novel reading can expand our sympathies, enlarge our human capacities and horizons. Surely this is true as far as it goes, but Wood implies much more here which he doesn't seem to realize is highly questionable. If I read him rightly, he is praising readers of novels who leave Plato's Cave in order just to become "non-judgmental" multiculturalists, open to all times, places, and persons. And this assumption, held apparently with uncritical dogmatism, is as far as Wood goes in considering the Good.

Wood's thinking, despite his own early voiced Joycean fear of pedantry, finally itself smells too much of the shop.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars A 'How-to' Book for the Beginning Writer that Will also Interest the...
Wood has given us a good introduction for the beginning novelist and the informed lay reader who wants to know more about 'the' novel. Read more
Published 1 month ago by ernest schusky
5.0 out of 5 stars An example is worth a thousand words
I've been reading a series of books about the art of fiction recently. Some are designed to encourage the aspiring writer; never mind if there's a talent for it, never mind if... Read more
Published 2 months ago by Ralph Glebe
4.0 out of 5 stars Lots of great advice
At first I was skeptical about how this book was going to help me with my own personal writing. Even though there are far more references than there is advice at some points, each... Read more
Published 3 months ago by Elisha Nain
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent for serious students
Clear, useful, insightful. Wood understands fiction from the inside, on the sentence and structural levels, yet this is not a technical how-to study. Read more
Published 4 months ago by Frank
5.0 out of 5 stars Introduction to Free Indirect Style
There are a lot of books out there about how not to write badly but there are very few about how to write well. James Wood's How Fiction Works is one of the best. Read more
Published 6 months ago by Ralph White
4.0 out of 5 stars Seminal work by talented critic
I loved reading James Wood for his own writing--which sometimes overwhelmed the stated purpose of his narrative--to show how fiction works. Read more
Published 7 months ago by Stephanie Queen
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful break down of fiction and its underpinnings
Wood is opinionated about Fiction and rightfully so - it is after all been his career to critique fiction. His chapter on detail - is most interesting. Read more
Published 7 months ago by KA McNamara
4.0 out of 5 stars Wood's Plea to Rescucitate Realism
One friend gave me Claire Messud's "The Woman Upstairs" and the other gave me "How Fiction Works," so I read both at the same time, later finding out that Messud and Wood are... Read more
Published 7 months ago by fh
4.0 out of 5 stars It makes me want to Barthes...
...sorry about that title, though having typed it, it causes me to think that James Wood would never come up with such word-play and good, I suppose, for him. Read more
Published 7 months ago by Santiago Lafcadio
5.0 out of 5 stars Perfect
Every serious writer should read James Wood. Amazon wants more words in a review, so I'll repeat: Every serious writer should read James Wood.
Published 9 months ago by C. Weese
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Why isn't this available for Kindle?!
i feel the same way about how some of my favorite books are not available on kindle...i would love to have more of my books available for kindle..its frusturating trying to find a new favorite arthur
Jan 7, 2009 by Marla Lockhart |  See all 2 posts
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