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Book review: “How Fiction Works” by James Wood

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Twice in his preface to How Fiction Works, James Wood quotes the novelist Ford Madox Ford.

In the first instance, Wood, citing Virginia Woolf, notes that the creation of a novel can’t only be the production of a string of “beautiful sentences.”  It’s not just its style, its verbal music.

She understood that fiction also has an ethical form, and that the form of this ethics is constituted both by a writer’s style and by a novel’s substance; this is how the novel justifies itself as a species of moral inquiry, what Ford Madox Ford called “a medium of profoundly serious investigation into the human case.”

Which I take to mean that a novel must say something about — give the reader a glimpse into the heart of — what it means to be a human being.

At the end of the preface, Wood discusses two main approaches to the meat of fiction, one that pretends and makes up the story, the other that talks about the real world, the real writer, the process of putting words on a page.  He looks at two writers with these different approaches and concludes:

Their project, their goal, their quarry, is what Ferrante calls “authenticity,” which she contrasts with mere verisimilitude.

And the methods differ but the result is the same: “a medium of profoundly serious investigation into the human case.”

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Wood, a critic and novelist, wrote that preface for the 2018 edition of his book, a tenth anniversary edition, updated and expanded, and he used the preface to clarify his aim in the book:

So this book is an exercise in formalist criticism and an exercise in ethical criticism.  I’m excited by questions of style (how metaphors work, which details are more powerful than others and why, how point of view functions, and so on ) and equally excited by questions of content (what is this novel about, what does it tell us about human motive, about how we live) or literary metaphysics (what makes a novelistic character seem alive, how does the novel disclose the real, what is the nature of the fictional enquiry into consciousness, what is “the real” anyway, and so on).

Wood describes his book as a personal essay, not a history, not a textbook.  Yet, he also notes that it has been assigned “as a kind of textbook” in many literature and creative writing courses.

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How Fiction Works is also, in its way, a tip sheet. 

As Wood discusses the theory and creation of fiction in such chapters as “Narrating” and “Truth, Convention, Realism,” he is rooting his analysis in centuries of great novels.  And, as he cites this or that text, describing some piquant aspect of its writing or form, Wood is setting the table for the reader for many feasts of rich reading.

I came to read How Fiction Works because it was the choice of one of my book clubs, and, upon finishing the book, I have a list of titles that I would like the club to read. 

This, I think, was part of Wood’s project in writing How Fiction Works — to prompt readers to read good novels.  At the end of his book, he offers four pages of titles of more than a hundred novels as well as a handful of short stories and the King James Bible that he has quoted from or referred to.

Here is my list from his list, put into the order in which I would like to read them:

  1. What Maisie Knew by Henry James — This is the story from the perspective of a young girl whose parents divorce when she is six.  It particularly appeals to me as someone who wrote a book Puddin’: The Autobiography of a Baby from the perspective of a baby.
  2. Hadji Murat by Leo Tolstoy — I’d never heard of this book, but Wood got my attention with these parenthetical two sentences: “(Tolstoy, again, om am electrifying moment at the end of his novella Hadji Murad, imagines what it might be like to have one’s head cut off, and for consciousness to persist for a second or two in the brain even as the head has left the body.  His imaginative insight foreshadows modern neuroscience, which does indeed suggest that consciousness can continue for a minute or two in a severed head.)”
  3. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark — Wood has a great many good things to say about this novel and about Spark as a writer.  This is a book I read half a century ago.
  4. Stoner by John Williams — Wood makes passing mention of this wonderful book (which I read thirty years ago) in a list of novels that describe a life from beginning to end. There is an eloquence to the novel’s plainness of language that I still remember.
  5. Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather — I re-read this book six years ago, and Wood got me wanting another time with it by describing its last chapter as having “some of the most exquisite pages ever written in American fiction.”
  6. Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert — I was intrigued by an excerpt by Wood in which the novel’s central character gets caught up in the 1848 revolution in Paris.
  7. Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill — Wood praises this book for its unconventional form — Offill writes in extremely short, double-spaced paragraphs — and it would be fun to take the challenge of this storytelling format.
  8. Sabbath’s Theater by Philip Roth — I’ve been interested in this book for a while.  Wood’s excerpt of a single long sentence makes me want to read it now.
  9. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky — This is a novel that I’ve been wanting the club to read for a while.
  10. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy — If not now, when?
  11. The Rainbow by D. H. Lawrence — Wood describes in a single sentence a list of scenes from the novel that captivated me.
  12. Henry V by William Shakespeare This book club read and discussed King Lear several years ago, and it seems time for another of Shakespeare’s great works.
  13. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce — I read this half a century ago when I was a teenager.
  14. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy — I read this two decades ago and am ready for it again.
  15. David Copperfield by Charles Dickens — I re-read this five years ago, but Wood got me wanting to read it again with his reference to Dickens describing a character “with such long legs that he looked like the afternoon shadow of somebody else.”

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How Fiction Works is a small compact book of 250 pages of text, presented in 140 numbered sections, many only a paragraph or two, in eleven chapters.

Wood writes at one point that he has used this approach because “numbered paragraphs allow me to dart around, float an idea, return to an earlier idea, and then to contradict myself a bit later.”

The format of this review is an example of numbered sections.

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Elmore Leonard and John Barth are two novelists whose books are great reading pleasure for me, filled as they are with gusto and liveliness.

Leonard appears in How Fiction Works only in a footnote.  Wood has been discussing descriptive passages in works by great novelists, such as Saul Bellow, and, in the note, he writes: 

“Elmore Leonard calls these the boring parts that readers tend to skip: ‘If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.’ ”

Barth’s name is mentioned when Wood is examining the tendency of modern writers to write themselves and their novel-making into their novels:

“A certain kind of postmodern novelist (like John Barth, say) is always lecturing us: ‘Remember, this character is just a character.  I invented him.’ ”

Other novelists I enjoy a great deal never pop up in How Fiction Works: Edith Wharton, Kazuo Ishiguro, Norman Mailer, Vance Bourjaily, Sandra Cisneros, Roddy Doyle, Jim Crace, Frederick Busch and Jane Smiley. 

That doesn’t necessarily mean that Wood dismisses their work.  After all, for the hundred-plus novels that he quotes or make reference to, I’m sure there are several hundred more that could have been included.

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Wood has much to say about the aspects of novels, and he does so in a lively, brisk prose:

  • “The novel is the great virtuoso of exceptionalism: it always wriggles out of the rules thrown around it.” (99)
  • “Art isn’t the same as life, but very close to it, and that apparently slight distance (‘nearest thing’ [George Eliot]) is actually a canyon, the large distance of artifice.” (xix)
  • “In Flaubert and his successors we have the sense that the ideal of writing is a procession of strung details, a necklace of noticings, and that is something of an obstruction of seeing, not an aid.” (73)
  • “Nearly all of Muriel Spark’s novels are fiercely composed and devoutly starved.  Her brilliantly reduced style, of ‘never apologize, never explain,’ seems a deliberate provocation: we feel compelled to turn the mere crescents of her characters into solid discs.” (106)
  • “So the novelist is always working with at least three languages.  There is the author’s own language, style, perceptual equipment, and so on; there is the character’s presumed language, style, perceptual equipment, and so on; and there is what we could call the language of the world — the language that fiction inherits before it gets to turn it into novelistic style, the language of daily speech, of newspapers, of offices, of advertising, of the blogosphere and text messaging.” (33)

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How Fiction Works is a book about the art of literature.  Much of what Wood writes would be mystifying for the great many readers, the majority, I’d guess, who read not for art but for entertainment.

There are writers I enjoy a great deal but would not expect to find in Wood’s book, such as Terry Pratchett, Christopher Moore, Andre Norton and Ed McBain (Evan Hunter).

Nonetheless, even those writers who are thinking more about entertaining their readers than about creating literary art are trying to do so with style and brio. 

And here’s the thing: these writers are using the same building blocks as the greatest authors, Melville and Austen and Shakespeare and all the other All-Stars.

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In the closing pages of How Fiction Works, Wood discusses “the broad central language of the novel and drama: what James in What Maisie Knew calls ‘the firm ground of fiction, through which indeed there curled the blue river of truth.’ ” 

And, just a few lines later, he writes:

“In our own reading lives, every day, we come across that blue river of truth, curling somewhere; we encounter scenes and moments and perfectly placed words in fiction and poetry, in film and drama, which strike us with their truth, which move and sustain us, which shake habit’s house to its foundations…”

Patrick T. Reardon

1.9.24

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