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How Fiction Works by James Wood

How Fiction Works (original 2008; edition 2008)

by James Wood (Author)

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1,2524810,083 (3.82)56
What makes a story a story? What is style? What's the connection between realism and real life? These are some of the questions James Wood answers in How Fiction Works, the first book-length essay by the preeminent critic of his generation. Ranging widely--from Homer to David Foster Wallace, from What Maisie Knew to Make Way for Ducklings--Wood takes the reader through the basic elements of the art, step by step.--From publisher description.… (more)
Title:How Fiction Works
Authors:James Wood (Author)
Info:Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2008), Edition: 1st, 265 pages
Collections:Your library, Books
Tags:Books, Criticism, British Writer, British Nonfiction

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How Fiction Works by James Wood (2008)


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Showing 1-5 of 46 (next | show all)
Fine, but wouldn't say it was anymore worthwhile than any other book on fiction writing I've read in the last few years. ( )
  encephalical | Nov 18, 2018 |

“When I talk about free indirect style I am really talking about point of view, and when I talk about point of view I am really talking about the perception of detail, and when I talk about detail I'm really talking about character, and when I talk about character I am really talking about the real, which is at the bottom of my inquiries.”
― James Wood, How Fiction Works

You might not agree with everything James Wood has to say about a particular author or work of literature, but you have to admit there isn’t another booklover more passionately dedicated to careful reading, finely honed criticism and upholding high standards. How Fiction Works is case in point: very much like an expert mechanic examining the assorted parts of the engine in an Italian or German sports car, James Wood rolls up his sleeves and scrutinizes various aspects of what goes into the writing of fiction, especially the novel.

His particular method is to undergird his analysis and reasoning with numerous examples – this is a fairly short book but there are over 100 individual literary novels quoted or referenced, from Don Quixote, Jane Eyre, Madame Bovary, What Maisie Knew, Sister Carrie and Ulysses to Invisible Man, Lolita, Seize the Day, Blood Meridian, Atonement and Gilead. And this is not exactly an easy book to read; I myself had to break an intellectual sweat, rereading passages again and again to grasp more completely Mr. Wood’s thinking. To share some of the many insights a reader will find in its pages, below are specific James Wood quotes coupled with my comments:

“In reality, we are stuck with third- and first-person narration. The common idea is that there is a contrast between reliable narration (third-person omniscient) and unreliable narrator (the unreliable first-person narrator, who knows less about himself than the reader eventually does). On one side Tolstoy, say; and on the other, Humbert Humbert or Italo Sveno’s narrator, Zeno Cosini, or Bertie Wooster.” ---------- The author spends a good number of his opening pages explaining the dynamics of voice, that is, the manner in which a story is told. At one point he notes: “Actually, the first-person narration is generally more reliable than unreliable; and third-person “omniscient” narration is generally more partial than omniscient.” I’m reminded of a personal favorite, the way Colin Harrison opens his Bodies Electric using a first-person narrator who is both completely reliable and painfully honest: “My name is Jack Whitman and I should never have had the first thing to do with her. I shouldn’t have indulged myself – my loneliness, my attraction to her – not with what was happening at the Corporation at the time. But I’m as weak hearted for love and as greedy for power as the next guy, maybe more so. And I was crazy for the sex – of course that was part of it.” These opening four sentences, set off like a string of explosions, give us a clear indication of what fireworks we can expect as we turn the pages.

“It is useful to watch good writers make mistakes. Plenty of excellent ones stumble at free indirect style.” ---------- Free indirect style being a blending of objective third-person narration with the thoughts and words of a character. James Wood shares the example of how John Updike in his novel Terrorist, in order to propel the story, puts impossible thoughts in the head of his eighteen-year old main character, impossible in the sense that an eighteen-year old could never have such thoughts and could never express such thoughts in the novelist’s sophisticated language. Major blunder! By the way, years ago when Updike’s novel S was first published, I recall reviewers claiming that the main character in the novel, a young woman by the name of Sarah Worth, wrote letters as if she had the literary talent of a John Updike. Again, major blunder!

“Novelists should thank Flaubert the way poets thank spring: it all begins again with him. There really is a time before Flaubert and a time after him. Flaubert decisively established what most readers and writers think of as modern realist narration, and his influence is almost too familiar to be visible.” --------- In order to fully dissect how fiction works and why fiction works, Mr. Wood delves into the history of the novel, particularly innovations made within the nineteenth century.

James Wood details why no novelist ever had a more profound influence on the novel than Gustave Flaubert.

“Literature makes us better noticers of life; we get to practice on life itself; which in turn makes us better readers of detail in literature; which in turn makes us better readers in life. And so on and on. You have only to teach literature to realize that most young readers are poor noticers.” ---------- I can speak to the truth of Wood’s claim by my own first-hand experience: after reading Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's Cancer Ward in my early 20s, I was better prepared to deal with my own father's confinement to a hospital bed for an extended time.

“There is nothing harder than the creation of fictional character. I can tell it from the number of apprentice novels I read that begin with descriptions of photographs.” ---------- Ha! First-rate fiction writers like Richard Russo and Elmore Leonard make the creation of their interesting, lifelike characters look so easy. It’s a kind of magic – it ain’t easy, as anyone who has ever tried their hand at fiction writing realizes very quickly.

“There is something deeply philosophical about Dostoevsky’s analysis of human behavior, and Nietzsche and Freud were attracted to his work (One chapter of Dostoevsky’s novella The Eternal Husband is entitled “Analysis.”). Proust, who said that all of Dostoevsky’s novels might have the one title, Crime and Punishment, studied him with perhaps more care than he would admit to.” ---------- One great characteristic of a truly great novelist: they expand and deepen what it means to write a novel. Certainly the case with Dostoevsky.

“This new approach to character meant a new approach to form. When character is stable, form is stable and linear – the novelist begins at the beginning, telling us about his hero’s childhood and education, moving decisively forward into the hero’s marriage, and then toward the dramatic crux of the book (something is wrong with the marriage). But if character is changeable, then why begin at the beginning? Surely it would be more effective to begin in the middle, and then move backward, and then move forward, and then move backward again? This is just the kind of form Conrad would use in Lord Jim and The Secret Agent, and Ford in The Good Soldier.” ---------- Along with voice, novelists must make clear decisions on how their novel will be structured in time. I vividly recall Charles Baxter’s First Light, a novel beginning with the main character, a middle-age Michigan car salesman by the name of Hugh Welsh, confronting a crisis involving his younger sister Dorsey, a university physicist. Each chapter moves further back in time, until we reach the last chapter when Hugh is a four-year-old boy at the hospital holding his newborn baby sister for the first time. Such authorial creativity made for unique reading.

"Ford Madox Ford, in his book Joseph Conrad: A Personal Remembrance, writes wonderfully about getting a character up and running - what he calls "getting the character in." -- Ample are the reasons given in Mr. Wood's book as to why Ford's words sparkle.

“We have to read musically, testing the precision and rhythm of a sentence, listening for the almost inaudible rustle of historical association clinging to the hems of modern words, attending to patterns, repetitions, echoes, deciding why one metaphor is successful and another is not, judging how the perfect placement of the right verb or adjective seals a sentence with mathematical finality.” ---------- Let me share what has helped me develop my own musical ear for reading fiction: I make it a point to occasionally read aloud. Respecting the musicality of fiction, the ear has it all over the eye.

“All the great realists, from Austen to Alice Munro, are at the same time great formalists. But this will be unceasingly difficult: for the writer has to act as if the available novelistic methods are continually about to turn into mere convention and so has to try to outwit that inevitable aging. The true writer, that free servant of life, is one who must always be acting as if life were a category beyond anything the novel has yet grasped; as if life itself were always on the verge of becoming conventional.” ----------- When it comes to fiction, a writer can have all the technical skills in the world but what will really, really set them apart is . . . drum roll with capitals: IMAGINATION.

A great realist; a great formalist - Canadian author Alice Munro ( )
  Glenn_Russell | Nov 13, 2018 |
No primeiro capítulo o autor discorre amplamente sobre o discurso indireto livre, aquele que é caracterizado pelo personagem narrador mas que obviamente sofre a interferência do autor e vice-versa.
No segundo capítulo Wood demonstra o quão influente foi Flaubert não apenas para a literatura mas também para o cinema que nem sequer havia sido inventado.
No capítulo 3 há as considerações sobre o flanêur flaubertiano, aquele personagem tão atento que registra as coisas ao seu redor como uma câmera, diferindo do que fazia Balzac que descrevia de forma muito mais dispersa.
No quarto capítulo Wood discorre sobre a tangibilidade do detalhe, contradiz Barthes no que se refere a um significante inútil apresentado entre os detalhes e pontua que um bom escritor nunca explica a presença do detalhe.
No capítulo 5 Wood exemplifica os conceitos de personagens redondo e plano de acordo dom E.M. Forster, dois quais ele não concorda pois designios espaciais não seriam adequados.
No sexto capítulo Wood monta uma retrospectiva da evolução da consciência na literatura, tendo como pontos-chave Diderot, Stendhal e Dostoiévski.
No capítulo 7 há algumas considerações sobre a empatia, tanto do autor em relação aos seus personagens quanto destes entre si, além de pinceladas sobre a filosofia moral.
No oitavo capítulo há uma variada exemplificação sobre a linguagem de certo autores, evidenciado os mais diferentes tipos de metáfora.
No capítulo 9 ocorre as intermitâncias do diálogo segundo as visões de Naipaul e Henry Green, este último sempre batendo na tecla dogmaticamente de que o diálogo é a única forma de se descobrir o personagem.
No décimo e derradeiro capítulo Wood arremata sobre o que afinal seria o realismo, se um gênero, um estilo, uma forma de verossimilança, uma realidade...

Enfim, no geral é um excelente livro com depurações estilísticas muito perspicazes sobre os mais diversos autores, indicando no final das contas que a literatura é um veio de infinitas possibilidades. ( )
  Adriana_Scarpin | Jun 12, 2018 |
This is a nice little book, an entertaining read, that apparently came into existence through revival and reworking of a series of essays or articles for literary magazines or blog entries. Thus it does not cover the subject, is quite heterogeneous and prone to unnecessary vignettes (e.g., "How wonderful is that." after a quote). Sometimes it chases complex philosophical concepts and theoretical notions, then it becomes apologetic and allows itself some gnomic cuteness.

Gives the impression of an august literary critic passing on his wisdom in the vein of "I know so much really sophisticated stuff, but let me tell you, the most important thing is that you like books as much as I do and just see the beauty".

Borges did it similarly in his series of lectures on literature.

I like it. It is an amusing read. ( )
  alik-fuchs | Apr 27, 2018 |
Wood’s how-to book is brief and to the point. He takes apart novels and shows the reader what techniques work and why. He gives very specific practical advice, especially in terms of language and character, but it is not a comprehensive manual on writing.

Nevertheless, I found it very useful given how overwhelming it feels to be writing one’s first novel. His advise allowed me to zero in quickly on aspects of writing such as the style of narration that is really used in today’s modern novels, and how one uses setting to structure your story. I could clearly see how his example could be used effectively in my own writing. ( )
  LynneMF | Aug 20, 2017 |
Showing 1-5 of 46 (next | show all)
How Fiction Works is, or is intended to be, a specialist's guide for the nonspecialist, and with this aim in view it remains resolutely nontechnical and amply accommodating. Wood displays his usual genius for apt quotation, and as always his enthusiasm for those writers about whom he is enthusiastic is both convincing and endearing.
added by jburlinson | editNew York Review of Books, John Banville (pay site) (Nov 20, 2008)
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