How Fiction Works

by James Wood

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How Fiction Works

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The term “genius” is bandied about so cavalierly that it is usually misapplied. It often confuses mere competence with genius rather than referring to the unique intelligence that is the mark of a William Shakespeare, a Jane Austen, or an Albert Einstein. Given this caveat, it is not out of line to call James Wood, based on his penetrating understanding of the dynamics of fiction writing, a genius in the field of literary criticism.

In this discerning book, whose title might erroneously suggest that it is a how-to book for people who hope to become novelists, Wood draws on his encompassing literary background and, in what becomes a thumbnail history of much of the Western world’s greatest literature, analyzes the mystery of how notable writers of fiction have achieved their artistic outcomes. Wood’s credentials for writing a book of this sort are impeccable; other distinguished critics have identified him as the most outstanding literary critic of his day.

In 1992, just short of his twenty-seventh birthday, Wood, still living in his native Great Britain, became the chief literary critic of The Guardian of London, a publication for which he still writes regularly. He served for twelve years as a major literary critic and senior editor of The New Republic in New York, and during this time he taught classes in literature and literary criticism at Boston University (coteaching with Nobel laureate Saul Bellow), Kenyon College, and Harvard University, where he has been professor of the practice of literary criticism since 2003. A regular contributor of book reviews to The New Yorker, he left The New Republic in 2007 to become a staff writer for that prestigious magazine.

Wood is controversial in that he spurns a narrow academic approach to literary criticism in favor of applying an aesthetic perspective to the fictional works he is reviewing. He assesses fiction by scrutinizing it closely and analytically, claiming “that there really is no such thing as irrelevant detail in fiction, even in realism, which tends to use . . . detail as a kind of padding, to make verisimilitude seem nice and comfy.”

Were he to analyze the preceding sentence, Wood undoubtedly would fix his attention upon its last five words, pointing out that they progressor, according to one’s likes and dislikesregress from the formality of “verisimilitude” to the downright familiar jargon of “nice and comfy.” His contrast in those words is clearly aimed at drawing his readers into his camp immediately after the formality of verisimilitude may well have alienated them.

Although Wood never refers directly to Plato’s theory of ideas (forms or shapes that are the essence of objects), he is concerned in many pages of this book with a quality that he chooses to call “thisness” and, in one instance, identifies as “quiddity.” Thisness and quiddity refer to the essence of things. In writing about David Foster Wallace’s story “The Suffering Channel,” Wood notes that Wallace is writing about the decomposition of language, and that, by writing twenty or thirty pages in a style that may seem tedious and trying to read, he “prosecutes an intense argument about the decomposition of language in America, and he is not afraid to decomposeand discomposehis own style in the interests of making us live through this linguistic America with him.” In doing so, Wallace creates a Platonic ideal, his prose capturing the thisness of his argument through a process that Wood terms the “full immersion method.”

Wood contends that few books have appeared that consider how fiction works after the publication in 1927 of E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel (which...

(This entire section contains 1733 words.)

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Wood considers imprecise) and of three books by Milan Kundera on the art of fiction. He considers Kundera a novelist and essayist, not a literary critic in any practical sense.

Whereas Forster often eschews flat characters, preferring fiction populated by what he considers round characters, Wood defends flat characters. He likens them to caricatures and points out their artistic function of illuminating specific human traits or characteristics, often by exaggerating them and presenting them unilaterally. He considers roundness impossible in fictional characters because, he contends, they are not real people. He complains that the quest for roundness in fictional characters dominates (he says, “tyrannizes”) readers, novelists, and critics, much to their critical disadvantage.

Wood discusses in fresh critical terms many of the warhorses of early twentieth century literary criticism, leveling his gaze upon most of the usual topics that have concerned critics: plot, metaphor, voice, and character development. He dismisses Forster’s concepts of flat and round characters, preferring that fictional characters be studied in terms of what he terms “transparencies” and “opacities.”

To illustrate this, he broaches a broad array of literary characters ranging from the soldier in Anton Chekhov’s short story “The Kiss” to Becky Sharp in William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1848), from Prince Hal and Falstaff in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I (1597) to Isabel Archer in Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady (1881). Wood consistently draws on an enormous range of works of fiction by such novelists as those mentioned above as well as Gustav Flaubert (to whom Wood devotes considerable space and whom he considers sacrosanct), Honoré de Balzac, James Joyce, Ford Madox Ford, Saul Bellow, Fyodor Dostoevski, Sinclair Lewis, Don DeLillo, William Gass, Thomas Hardy, D. H. Lawrence, Iris Murdoch, Virginia Woolf, Beatrix Potter, Muriel Spark, Theodore Dreiser, and a host of others.

Wood details how a novelist such as Spark, in her novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961), exercises what he calls a ruthless control over her fictional characters with her use of the flash-forward technique rather than the flashback. Spark surges forward from the main action of the plot to tell her readers what eventually happens to the characters about whom she is writing: Miss Brodie will die of cancer, Mary Macgregor will die at age twenty-three in a fire, and students mentioned in the text will enter into lackluster marriages or, in one case, will enter a convent.

Wood acknowledges that these flash-forwards, a technique also employed effectively by National Book Award winner Annie Proulx, may seem cruel to some readers because they make “summary judgments,” but he contends that Spark uses them effectively to question whether Miss Brody ever actually had a prime herself. The primes of some of the schoolgirls with whom Spark populates her novel are behind them rather than skulking furtively in their respective futures. The chief virtue of Spark’s flash-forwards is that they give Spark authorial control beyond any she could achieve were she simply to write within a purely temporally sequential context.

Among Wood’s many perceptive discussions of how fiction writers handle the details of their composition is his discussion of temporality. Every writer of fiction is ultimately forced to come to grips with how to deal with time in unfolding their stories. Wood contends that, within any work of fiction, its creator must deal with elements of time and with the simultaneity of events that occur within the story.

A fictional character, for example, may be drowning, but, as his or her rowboat drifts away out of reach, children may be flying kites on a nearby beach, unaware of the drama being enacted within sight of them, or a cat may be climbing a nearby tree to attack a nest of toothsome fledglings. At any single moment in a story, a crucial event, central to the story, may be occurring while routine activities happen nearby. This is a temporal reality that authors writing realistic fiction must recognize and acknowledge for their fiction to achieve credibility.

Wood devotes thirty-one pages to a detailed discussion of language and follows it with eight pages concerning dialogue. In the former, he considers how skillful writers achieve rhythm and linguistic momentum by handling everyday speech in all its simplicity with the sort of deftness found in the writing of such complex stylists as Herman Melville, James, Woolf, and Lawrence.

Differentiating writing as an art quite distinct from music or painting, Wood notes that prose is always simple, no matter how difficult and extraordinary it may seem, because it is a medium used in commonplace communication. He accounts how Flaubert, who ranks at the top of Wood’s list of exemplary stylists, labored over matters of style, agonizing over every word. He goes on to demonstrate how such intense labor characterizes the writing of such modern authors as Bellow and John Updike and how it is the offspring of such earlier literary stylists as Molière and Cervantes, who have been models for many of the noteworthy literary stylists following them.

Wood points out that Bellow, whom he identifies as one of the most effective stylists among modern novelists, eclipsing such notables as DeLillo, Updike, or Philip Roth, “read poetry: Shakespeare at first (he could recite lines and lines from the plays, remembered from his schooldays in Chicago), then Milton, Keats, Wordsworth, Hardy, Larkin, and his friend John Berryman. And behind all this, with its English stretching all the way back into deeper antiquity, the King James Bible.”

The successful novelist, according to Wood, must be attuned to the rhythms and musicality of language. He also points to the difficulty of translating many of the rhythms of one language into another language, citing a Flaubert sentence from Madame Bovary (1857) as an example of this difficulty. The sentence in question is “L’idée d’avoir engendré délectait,” which Wood translates as “The idea of having engendered delighted him,” an accurate literal rendering of the French words. He notes that Geoffrey Wall, in his Penguin translation of Madame Bovary, renders the sentence thus: “The thought of having impregnated her was delectable to him.” Again a worthy translation.

Wood then goes on perceptively to point out what is lost in both translations. “Say the French out loud as Flaubert would have done, and you encounter four ’ay’ sounds in three of the words: ’L’idée, engend, délectait.’” He goes on to point out that an English translation that sought “to mimic the untranslatable music of the French . . . would sound like bad hip-hop: ’The notion of procreation was a delectation.’”

Wood’s uniquely fresh approach to interpreting literature makes How Fiction Works an intellectually challenging book that will bear reading and rereading by those seriously interested in literary criticism. The scope and depth of Wood’s assessments consistently impress.


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American Scholar 77, no. 4 (Autumn, 2008): 137-139.

The Economist 386 (February 9, 2008): 90.

Kirkus Reviews 76, no. 8 (April 15, 2008): 416.

Library Journal 133, no. 9 (May 15, 2008): 103-104.

The Nation 287, no. 19 (December 8, 2008): 46-52.

The New Republic 239, no. 1 (July 30, 2008): 35-37.

New Statesman 137 (February 11, 2008): 56.

New York, August 11, 2008, pp. 64-65.

The New York Review of Books 55, no. 18 (November 20, 2008): 85-88.

Newsweek 152, no. 5 (August 4, 2008): 60.

Publishers Weekly 255, no. 16 (April 21, 2008): 43.

Time 172, no. 4 (July 28, 2008): 60.

The Times Literary Supplement, February 8, 2008, p. 13.

The Writer 121, no. 10 (October, 2008): 43.