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How Fiction Works Hardcover – July 22, 2008

ISBN-13: 978-0374173401 ISBN-10: 0374173400 Edition: 1st

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How Fiction Works + ASPECTS OF THE NOVEL + The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers
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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: 7.8 x 5.3 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (70 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #503,763 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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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Customer Reviews

Studying this book will make you a better reader.
L. Wolf
It is really scandalous that Mr. Wood didn't see fit to mention this forebear from which he borrows so much.
madman
Wood quotes a favorite image from Saul Bellow's "Seize the Day."
M. Fetler

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

129 of 146 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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196 of 244 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. The novel does not have plot, he implies; it does something much more important.
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128 of 170 people found the following review helpful By madman on August 3, 2008
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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Format: Paperback
The title attracted my attention: I know what I like when I read it, but I don't always stop to analyse how it works, or even why. I also wondered, as I made a decision to read, whether a book of less than 300 pages could address this to my satisfaction.

I found the book interesting. Far from attempting definitive answers, Professor Wood poses a set of questions to consider as part of critical reading. Consider the following:
`What do we mean when we say we `know' a fictional character?'
`What constitutes a `telling' detail?'
`When is a metaphor successful?'
`Why do most endings of novels disappoint?'

Professor Wood covers the narrative and style of a range of different authors, including Homer, Austen, Woolf, Bellow, Beatrix Potter, Coetzee, Le Carre and Pynchon.

For me, this book is a starting point rather than a destination. I enjoyed the writing, didn't always share the conclusions and would like to consider further some of the other forms of fiction apart from novels.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith
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