- 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: 101 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #873,973 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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How Fiction Works 1st Edition
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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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The second chapter tracks the birth and development of free indirect style in modern literature, citing Flaubert as its originator and James as its master. These two chapters, circa 60 pages, comprise the essence of the lesson, with the rest of the book essentially a PhD thesis on the birth of modernity in literary fiction. Interesting to be sure, but not remotely as informative as the first 60 pages, especially for beginners.
He does take Barthes to serious task in quoting Barthes' 1966 observation that narrative represents nothing and that a novel is, in terms of narrative, "language alone, the adventure of language, the unceasing celebration of its coming." Even if Barthes is wrong, he almost proves his point in writing so beautifully about language itself.
Here's Wood himself, almost as good: "I think that novels tend to fail not when the characters are not vivid or deep enough, but when the novel in question has failed to teach us how to adapt to its conventions, has failed to manage a specific hunger for its own characters, its own reality level." I'm not sure that "reality level" would be less clumsy if it were just "world," by maybe Wood is trying to caress, or castigate, some part of David Shields here.
Wood is well read and reads well. He's helped enormously by having a fine ear and eye for the fine analysis by others, from Virginia Woolf to Brigid Lowe (on the very notion of whether fiction is responsible for providing some kind of proof about the world).
His own writing is never less than competent; even if he doesn't know where to put "only," as a modifier, as in "it only needs to ask the right questions," or hears a "hiss" in this (well, there is a hiss in "this" but not in this, which is what he quotes: ""What, quite unmanned in folly?").
He also quotes the same George Eliot words twice. Nice words, but mostly a reminder that this book was no doubt put together from separate essays and neither Wood nor his editors read the book itself carefully enough to avoid such repetition (of this: "Art is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot.").
"How Fiction Works" doesn't "read like a novel." It's not supposed to. But it's more involving than most fiction, which may not be saying much, but it's saying something. Something that would be depressing if this book weren't so celebratory, in its way, of what is often good in our fiction and why fiction is important (the novel being "the highest example of subtle interrelatedness that man has discovered," D. H. Lawrence, not quoted by Wood).
Woods's references to other master novelists and critics, and even painters and police chiefs, make for engaging reading on a topic that transforms the casual reader to the well informed one. Among the best moments from the author himself are these:
* The writer's job is to become, to impersonate what he describes, even when the subject itself is debased, vulgar, boring (33).
* Rich and daring prose avails itself of harmony and dissonance by being able to move in and out (196).
* The writer's--or critic's, or reader's--task is then to search for the irreducible, the superfluous, the margin of gratuity, the element in a style--in any style--which cannot be easily reproduced and reduced (233).
* Realism, seen broadly as truthfulness to the way things are, cannot be mere verisimilitude, cannot be mere lifelikeness, or lifesameness, but what I must call lifeness: life on the page, life brought to different life by the highest artistry (247).
If these summative points resonate for you, then "How Fiction Works" is worth your time.
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