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How Fiction Works 1st Edition

3.9 out of 5 stars 86 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0374173401
ISBN-10: 0374173400
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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

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.)
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1st edition (July 22, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374173400
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374173401
  • Product Dimensions: 5.4 x 1.1 x 7.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (86 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #66,407 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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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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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Format: Paperback
'How Fiction Works' is a reasoned approach, element by element, to Mr. Wood's ideas of *why* successful literature is effective. This is theory, but not so technical that readers unfamiliar with literary criticism (like me) will feel out of their depths. In fact, Mr. Wood's style and arguments are not unfairly complex, and those who would be interested in this kind of critique should have little trouble grasping his concepts.

That isn't to say that it's a cursory examination. Though quite short, the author roots around in literature's history and plucks out gems from Flaubert, Bellow, and Dostoyevsky among others, for exemplary illustrations of:

-The difference between detail that is merely place setting, detail that inhabits the object described, and detail that sells the story (Thisness),
-What's really real (lifeness),
-Going beyond Point of View and into Free Indirect Style, and how even the masters overwrite,
-And a rebuttal to E.M. Forster, in Forster's 'The Aspect of the Novel', of the idea of round and flat characters, along with other notes on dialogue, language and "A Brief History of Consciousness".

If Mr. Wood, in his (mostly) earnest and guiding style, had limited himself to these discussions, then I think the book's success (regardless if I agree with every idea) would be assured. What is frankly bewildering to me is the inclusion of Mr. Wood's short, throwaway asides concerning religion.

Mr. Wood establishes his opinion quickly - in the second paragraph of the book, he quotes Phillip Larkin (religion as "That vast musical moth-eaten brocade") when asserting that both religion and the eighteenth century's stylistic tendency toward 'authorial omniscience' have "had (their) day".
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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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