How Fiction Works - James Wood I kind of hate reading books of this sort as they leave me with a heightened awareness of style, character, rhythm, etc. that makes it difficult to read average or sub-par fiction. Of course, the benefit of reading books like this is that I do cultivate a more discriminatory taste so that I read only the best "trashy" novels.

I haven't read any of Wood's criticisms but if this brief tome is any indication of the author's style, erudition and insightfulness, I have been missing out.

As with other books in this genre, Wood covers the elements of the novel - narrative, detail, character, dialog, realism & style - and briefly discusses its evolution (tracing some of those elements as far back as the biblical David).

While the whole work is impressive, I was taken with several particulars:

Here, Wood doesn't focus so much on differences between 1st person and 3rd person so much as on what he terms "free indirect style" - which is the tension between the author's perceptions and language and the character's. As examples of this he quotes from Henry James' What Maisie Knew (a successful balance) and John Updike's Terrorist (an unsuccessful attempt):

She knew governesses were poor; Miss Overmore was unmentionably and Mrs. Wix ever so publicly so. Neither this, however, nor the old brown frock nor the diadem nor the button, made a difference for Maisie in the charm put forth through everything, the charm of Mrs. Wix's conveying that somehow, in her ugliness and her poverty, she was peculiarly and soothingly safe; safer than any one in the world, than papa, than mamma, than the lady with the arched eyebrows; safe even, though so much less beautiful, than Miss Overmore, on whose loveliness, as she supposed it, the little girl was faintly conscious that one couldn't rest with quite the same tucked-in and kissed-for-good-night feeling. Mrs. Wix was as safe as Clara Matilda, who was in heaven and yet, embarrassingly, also in Kensal Green, where they had been together to see her little huddled grave. (p. 14)


Ahmad is eighteen. This is early April; again green sneaks, seed by seed, into the drab city's earthy crevices. He looks down from his new height and thinks that to the insects unseen in the grass he would be, if they had a consciousness like his, God. In the year past he has grown three inches, to six feet - more unseen materialist forces, working their will upon him. He will not grow any taller, he thinks, in this life or the next. If there is a next, an inner devil murmurs. What evidence beyond the Prophet's blazing and divinely inspired words proves that there is a next? Where would it be hidden? Who would forever stoke Hell's boilers? What infinite source of energy would maintain opulent Eden, feeding its dark-eyed houris, swelling its heavy-hanging fruits, renewing the streams and splashing fountains in which God, as described in the ninth sura of the Qur'an, take eternal good pleasure? What of the second law of thermodynamics? (pp. 27-8)

In the first excerpt, Wood argues that James authentically inhabits Maisie's mind and yet can pull away to show the world around her. Whereas, Ahmad is thinking the Updike's thoughts, not his own (As soon as we imagine a Christian version of this narration, we can guage Updike's awkward alienation from his character (p. 29))

Character is the most difficult aspect of the novel to invoke. All too often authors fall back on static imagery. (p. 95f) Good characters are invoked using the telling detail or the nontelling detail. I.e., we remember them because of what they do or fail to do. This applies both to main characters and incidental ones:

Ford Madox Ford...writes wonderfully about getting a character up and running - what he calls "getting a character in...." Ford...loved a sentence from a Maupassant story, "La Reine Hortense": "He was a gentleman with red whiskers who always went first through a doorway." Ford comments: "That gentleman is so sufficiently got in that you need no more of him to understand how he will act. He has been 'got in' and can get to work at once." (pp. 96-7)

Word's section titled "Brief History of Consciousness" also stands out in my mind. Here, he traces how story telling evolved from King David, all external action, to Macbeth, a tale of "publicized privacy," to Raskolnikov ([book:Crime and Punishment]), where the character "is being watched by us, the readers." (p. 146) This makes possible the novel as analyst of psychological/internal motives like no other medium before or since. (pp. 147-8)

As before with "character," Wood quotes extensively from Ford's The English Novel and his memoir of Joseph Conrad: It was to Diderot...that the Novel owes its next great step forward.... At that point it became suddenly evident that the Novel as such was capable of being regarded as a means of profoundly serious and many-sided discussion and therefore a medium of profoundly serious investigation into the human case. (p. 165) And, What was the matter with the Novel...was that it went straight forward, whereas in your gradual making acquaintanceship with your fellows you never do go straight forward.... To get such a man in fiction you could not begin at his beginning and work his life chronologically to the end. You must first get him in with a strong impression and then work backwards and forwards over his past. (pp. 166-7)

A few other highlights from the book:
Section 97: The novel explores the complexity of human life - the contradictions and compromises all must make with themselves and others to live: Of course, the novel does not provide philosophical answers.... gives the best account of the complexity of our moral fabric. (pp. 178-9)

Section 103f: "Rhythm and Music" Having learned to discern (however faintly, in my case) the rhythms of good prose, it's difficult to read just anything. But as in music, you develop an ear for what you like and respond to. Thus, I like the cadences of [author:Ursula Le Guin] or [author:Steve Erickson] or [author:James Branch Cabell] but [author:Robert Heinlein] or [author:Thomas Pynchon] grate.

In these sections, too, Wood raises problems of translation. E.g., Flaubert's original "L'idee d'avoir engendre le delectait" loses its "music" in English. I've always wished I could read the original Russian because I can't know whether I like Chekhov and Dostoyevsky or their translators.

To finish out this section, an observation (paraphrased): The good novelist balances free indirect speech with style - the "music" of a sentence.

Finally, toward the end of the book, Wood illustrates the competent but uninspired prose of much fiction (using an excerpt from Le Carre's Smiley's People (p. 231)). It's not bad writing but it takes few risks ("thin" hotel). The serious writer should reject "mere photographic fidelity, because art selects and shapes." (p. 240)

I read a review in The New York Review of Books (Nov. 20, 2008, Vol. LV, No. 18) after finishing this book that, I think, nicely sums up what Wood is doing: This, surely, is the heart of Wood's argument, that we go to fiction for many reasons...but what we are really in search of is not fiction, but life itself. Like the figures in our dreams, the characters we encounter in fiction are really us, and the story we are told is the story of ourselves. (NYRB, p. 88)

If the length of this review is any indication, you can see that I'm quite taken with this book and will be buying my own copy as soon as it comes out in paperback or I can get a cheap, used copy.