How Fiction Works Download í 109

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O the machinery of storytelling to ask some fundamental uestions What do we mean when we say we know a fictional character? What constitutes a telling detail? When is a metaphor successful? Is Realism realistic? Why do some literary conventions become dated while others stay fresh?James Wood ranges widely What I love about books like this is that they are filled with gobbets I rewatched The History Boys also referenced at one point not too long ago including a casual reference to the ridiculousness that is Boney M and allow me to dip into books I would never consider reading or had up to that point never considered reading without necessarily looking to agree or disagree with what is being said instead just soaking it all in Narrating Detail Character check check check A Brief History of Consciousness che eck? ie the point at which things took a very philosophical turn and my mantra became Just keep reading just keep reading pretty much reaffirming the fact that though I enjoyed J M Coetzee's novel on Dostoevsky The Master of Petersburg it is unlikely that I will ever actually read any Dostoevsky devastating I know But it becomes readable again long before the endFYI if I don't see Flaubert referenced in any book ever again it'll be too soon Had I been playing a drinking game and taken a shot every time Flaubert pops up I'd have been dead drunk long before the last page Or just dead I'm worried I've developed some sort of psychological complex Peppa Pig point not too long ago including a casual reference to the ridiculousness that is Boney M and allow me to dip into books I would never consider reading or had up to that Dot.Homme point never considered reading without necessarily looking to agree or disagree with what is being said instead just soaking it all in Narrating Detail Character check check check A Brief History of Consciousness che eck? ie the The West (3rd Edition) point at which things took a very The Maddest Idea (Revolution at Sea philosophical turn and my mantra became Just keep reading just keep reading The Ultimate Guide to Trail Running pretty much reaffirming the fact that though I enjoyed J M Coetzee's novel on Dostoevsky The Master of Petersburg it is unlikely that I will ever actually read any Dostoevsky devastating I know But it becomes readable again long before the endFYI if I don't see Flaubert referenced in any book ever again it'll be too soon Had I been A Biggles Omnibus playing a drinking game and taken a shot every time Flaubert The Power of Soft pops up I'd have been dead drunk long before the last Moscow, December 25, 1991 page Or just dead I'm worried I've developed some sort of Planetary Forces, Alchemy and Healing psychological complex

Summary · E-book, or Kindle E-pub ☆ James Wood

How Fiction Works

In the tradition of E M Forster's Aspects of the Novel and Milan Kundera's The Art of the Novel How Fiction Works is a scintillating study of the magic of fiction an analysis of its main elements and a celebration of its lasting power Here one of the most prominent and stylish critics of our time looks int “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 inuiries”― James Wood How Fiction WorksYou 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 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 uoted or referenced from Don uixote 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 completely Mr Wood’s thinking To share some of the many insights a reader will find in its pages below are specific James Wood uotes 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 reliable than unreliable; and third person “omniscient” narration is generally 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 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 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 El 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 uickly “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 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 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 uniue 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

Free read How Fiction Works

From Homer to Make Way for Ducklings from the Bible to John le Carré and his book is both a study of the techniues of fiction making and an alternative history of the novel Playful and profound How Fiction Works will be enlightening to writers readers and anyone else interested in what happens on the page I thought this book would be written with a writerly slant but no More with a readerly slant turns out Still as a writer wading into novel writing you can pick up a thing or two Up to you I imagine Wood thinking He's about educating readersThe good thing? This is mostly approached in layman's terms It does not come across as high falutin' ivory tower show off talk that is when authors have an audience of fellow professors in mind The other good thing? Wood uses so many excerpts by way of example you will find yourself wanting to read some of the books he alludes to For me that would be books like The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis Saramago Sabbath's Theater Roth Seize the Day Bellow The Waves Woolf The Rainbow Lawrence and Wittgenstein's Nephew Bernhard to name a fewIt's always embarrassing to see how not so well read you are when you read books about reading isn't it?Anyway the sections of the book give you an idea about where James Wood goes with this Narrating Flaubert and Modern Narrative Flaubert and the Rise of the Flaneur Detail Character A Brief History of Consciousness Sympathy and Complexity Language Dialogue and Truth Convention RealismThe Realism discussion at the end is amusing Nobody uite agrees on what is real and many newer writers like to pile on and dis realism in very realistic ways Whatever I leave that to the philosophers who also disagree on what a chair is This is in the end a book you'll enjoy if you like reading about reading It's big print it's fast and it drops names and uotes like a baby drops food from the high chair What's not to like?


10 thoughts on “How Fiction Works

  1. says:

    “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 inuiries”― James Wood How Fiction WorksYou 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 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 uoted or referenced from Don uixote 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 completely Mr Wood’s thinking To share some of the many insights a reader will find in its pages below are specific James Wood uotes 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 reliable than unreliable; and third person “omniscient” narration is generally 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 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 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 El 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 uickly “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 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 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 uniue 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


  2. says:

    Critics often get a bad reputation and likely deservingly so I often reflect on a uote by Macedonio Fernández that a critic knows nothing of what perfect literature is but only what it is not and especially while writing on Goodreads am constantly haunted by Susan Sontag's Against Interpretation I tend to think of critics as being that friend in high school that hangs out at your band practice He is the friend that knows about your songs than you do and has memorized your lyrics before you've finished writing them; he is friend that talks about your band and is always there to support your band because somehow it makes him feel like he is part of the band maybe even the key part When I write on here I have to accept the fact that I am glorifying an art that puts stars in my eyes but the I point out theory and what does and doesn't work still in no way makes me feel as if I am able to create the art that I love to assess Occasionally I have a bit of an existential crisis—everyone needs a good existential crisis from time to time—and wonder why I spent so much time writing about writing instead of simply attempting art myself not that I'm a critic or am in any way ualified to give opinions on a book Perhaps it is because I am no good at it but talking about it makes me feel like I can be part of that 'cool club' of artists as if understanding Roberto Bolaño somehow makes me like one of the characters hanging out with him in his books that I so adoreJames Wood saves me from the despair of actually loving the idea of being a critic To be honest if you were to ask me 'what do you want to be when you grow up?' because at 28 I still think of the future in this way and forget that I am 'grown up' because I sure as hell don't feel like it I would answer that my 'rock star' dream is to teach college lit and review books for the New Yorker Just like my boy James Wood Wood makes reviewing its own art form that is as eually valid and beautiful as literature itself When I read his reviews I read them with the same awe and critical eye as I do any novelist; the man packs theory and prose into tiny packages of literary power that paint a masterpiece of ideas on the canvas of a novel Just today I was wowed by his review of The Buried Giant in which he managed to reveal all the novel's misgivings while capturing all the author's strengths James Wood gives critics a good name and his How Fiction Works is an immensely valuable readI learned from this book than I did in all of college pursuing an English Degree Wood tackles the theory and joy of an intensely impressive array of writers probably pointing out even to them just what they get right or wrong John Updike is used in some of the best 'do NOT do this' passages of the book This book is indispensable to anyone hoping to look deeper into books and have the literary science to solidify your own opinion and will create an endless to read list from all the examples he delivers Wood is opinionated and rather aggressively so though I tend to often agree with him and even when I don't his opinions are so well argued that they are still a joy to read I take this down off the shelf and read over select passages it is one long essay broken up into mercifully short 'chapters' at least once every few months This man has my rock star job and just may be my hero


  3. says:

    For 75 pages this was all clang clang clang goes the trolley ding ding ding goes the bell but then it turned a sharp corner and I think I done got throwed off the bus Ow As it rattled off without me I was left to think carefully about what I’m doing when I read a novel aside from avoiding the interminable election debates on tv OMG another 3 weeks to go and what I think a novel is doing or supposed to be doing It’s good to be made to think about these things But why did I get throwed off the bus?This jampacked little book is all about the why of novels and it's got some high standards to apply to both novels and readers so you better shape up you readers you Hey I do mean YOU Yeah That's rightIt’s like James Wood expects us to be listening to some random tune and be able to name the bass player and the producer’s previous hits and the singer’s favourite drugs and where it got to in the charts and its relation to the minor essays of Jean Paul Sartre and Flaubert’s left earlobeJames Wood is like the gold standard reader When you read David Foster Wallace you notice that he notices everything I mean everything and notices everything about himself noticing things and so on and so forth James Wood does all that while he reads every single novel Not one word passes casually beneath the Wood eyeballs Every phrase will be cross examined Every paragraph will have bamboo shoved up its fingernails until it confesses where it stands in regard to Stendahl Balzac and Dostoyevsky And Flaubert Frankly I was outclassed I was than a little crushed I was talked down to It had been made clear that I'd got on the wrong bus Me Moi As the trolley lurched round another bend I was turning distinctly green It was all going so well when JW was discussing the free indirect style of modern narration which enables an indeterminate locus of reality to emerge which is not the character speaking and not the author either but a fifth dimension euipoised between the two All that was great But then he gets in to character a brief history of consciousness and sympathy and complexity Then the full florid obsessions emerged – no 20th century only French and Russians Balzac More Flaubert Pushkin Stendahl Diderot Chekhov Tolstoy Yeah that’s right punk All those guys you never read You were going to get round to them but well I don’t know but you just never did Well I bet you’re regretting that now because you can’t talk about fiction without an intimate knowledge of alla those guys Sorry I bet you want to slink off back into the night now donchaGo ahead slinkWhen the 20th century is reluctantly allowed into JW’s purview it’s Hardy never read him Buddenbrooks never read it Proust same Italo Svevo huh? Thomas Pynchon no thanks and Saul Bellow oh I read one by him – the wrong one It must be said out loud James Wood is an old school patrician sneerer Even though he’s earned the right to sneer a hundred times over there’s still no need for it Here’s where I gagged If prose is to be written as well as poetry novelists and readers must develop their own third ears We have to read musically testing the 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 whether a metaphor is successful and another is not judging how the perfect placement of the right verb or adjective seals a sentence with mathematical finality We must proceed on the assumption that almost all prose popularly acclaimed as beautiful “she writes like an angel” is nothing of the sort that almost every novelist will at some point be baselessly acclaimed for writing “beautifully” as almost all flowers are at some point acclaimed for smelling niceIs this not a bit nauseating? Get off of your high horse JW Maybe there are 41 other human beings who read the right books with the perfect superconsciousness using their perfect brains bulging with culture in the way that JW advises but the rest of us are real people who sometimes read in the bath with the radio on Some of us have actually not read Flaubert’s Sentimental Education Think of that Some of us – you may have to lie down for this – have no intention of reading Flaubert’s Sentimental Education We are the plebs your culture warned you about However at the end of this book we get 20 pages about realism Here James Wood defends the idea that the business of fiction is to get real life in some way onto the printed page Suddenly James Wood is my new best friend Yes It’s about time someone stuck it to those old haddocks William Gass and Roland Barthes I love this Realism seem broadly as truthfulness to the way things are cannot be mere verisimilitude cannot be mere lifelikeness or lifesameness but what I call lifeness life on the page life brought to different life by the highest artistry And it cannot be a genre; instead it makes the forms of fiction seem like genres For realism of this kind is the origin It teaches everyone else; it schools its truantsSo – what can I say – read the first 75 pages and the last 20 and don’t mess with Mr In Between We cannot write about rhythm and not refer to Flaubert and so once again as if unable to stop rereading the old letters of a former lover I return to him Ugh


  4. says:

    What I love about books like this is that they are filled with gobbets I rewatched The History Boys also referenced at one point not too long ago including a casual reference to the ridiculousness that is Boney M and allow me to dip into books I would never consider reading or had up to that point never considered reading without necessarily looking to agree or disagree with what is being said instead just soaking it all in Narrating Detail Character check check check A Brief History of Consciousness che eck? ie the point at which things took a very philosophical turn and my mantra became Just keep reading just keep reading pretty much reaffirming the fact that though I enjoyed J M Coetzee's novel on Dostoevsky The Master of Petersburg it is unlikely that I will ever actually read any Dostoevsky devastating I know But it becomes readable again long before the endFYI if I don't see Flaubert referenced in any book ever again it'll be too soon Had I been playing a drinking game and taken a shot every time Flaubert pops up I'd have been dead drunk long before the last page Or just dead I'm worried I've developed some sort of psychological complex


  5. says:

    This is a book I've read re read and re re read I go back to it freuently whenever I've finished one of the titles from its bibliography or just to revisit Wood's various topics Deceptively simple and uickly read If allowed HFW will inform any novel you read It is not comprehensive in its scope; it omits topics like plot structure etc and limits itself to Wood's own intersts an issue some reviewers take exception to There was a time when I'd read a passage from a novel and wonder 'whose word IS that?' Thanks to Wood I realize many of those passages were written in free indirect style Now that I can identify it I see its use freuently and have an appreciation for its utility Whatever else this book is it is NOT a how to manual for new authors Although they would likely benefit from reading it Wood's simple presentation considers an abundance of novels many uite well known or classics and he adds insight to every title mentioned This book is nothing like his books of essays but it is informed by the same sensibility For those who might be theory or criticism averse


  6. says:

    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 discriminatory taste so that I read only the best trashy novelsI 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 outAs 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 DavidWhile the whole work is impressive I was taken with several particularsNARRATIVEHere 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 uotes from Henry James' What Maisie Knew a successful balance and John Updike's Terrorist an unsuccessful attempt She knew governesses were poor; Miss Over 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 Over on whose loveliness as she supposed it the little girl was faintly conscious that one couldn't rest with uite 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 14vs 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 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 ur'an take eternal good pleasure? What of the second law of thermodynamics? pp 27 8In 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 29CHARACTERCharacter 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 Ie we remember them because of what they do or fail to do This applies both to main characters and incidental ones Ford Madox Fordwrites wonderfully about getting a character up and running what he calls getting a character in Fordloved 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 of him to understand how he will act He has been 'got in' and can get to work at once pp 96 7Word'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 Crime and Punishment where the character is being watched by us the readers p 146 This makes possible the novel as analyst of psychologicalinternal motives like no other medium before or since pp 147 8As before with character Wood uotes extensively from Ford's The English Novel and his memoir of Joseph Conrad It was to Diderotthat 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 Novelwas that it went straight forward whereas in your gradual making acuaintanceship 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 7A few other highlights from the bookSection 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 Insteadit gives the best account of the complexity of our moral fabric pp 178 9Section 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 Ursula Le Guin or Steve Erickson or James Branch Cabell but Robert Heinlein or Thomas Pynchon grateIn these sections too Wood raises problems of translation Eg 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 translatorsTo finish out this section an observation paraphrased The good novelist balances free indirect speech with style the music of a sentenceFinally 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 240I 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 reasonsbut 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 88If the length of this review is any indication you can see that I'm uite 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


  7. says:

    A verymost entertaining and informative book about books and how writers make them from words placed in different orders Split into handy chapters but written as one lengthy essay with numerical subheadings Wood teaches us things from Flaubert James Joyce Foster Wallace and other masters and mistresses about how to identify bad writing from good and how free indirect style is a thing of beauty when done right Only trouble is his persistent disagreement with a William Gass uote that he milks for the whole book while soldering his argument into the pages Never disagree with The Gass Hauntings and such to be feared I have nothing else to add Regard the four stars and begone


  8. says:

    021116 this is gently deceptive as a title this is not how 'fiction' works but how a 'sort' of fiction works which happens to be his 'sort' and likely to be the 'sort' that interests someone who would read a book like this on the one acknowledged classics admired contemporary widely sourced on the other neither breathtakingly popular which might garner readers for possibly non literary reasons such as this movie or that event or person nor obscurely involved in literary exploration of exactly what he says is needed to make 'fiction work' such as 'character' 'narrator' 'voice' and so onit is brief it is concise it is clear it has a good bibliography and i discover by the number of said books read that yes i am someone who would read a book like this


  9. says:

    I thought this book would be written with a writerly slant but no More with a readerly slant turns out Still as a writer wading into novel writing you can pick up a thing or two Up to you I imagine Wood thinking He's about educating readersThe good thing? This is mostly approached in layman's terms It does not come across as high falutin' ivory tower show off talk that is when authors have an audience of fellow professors in mind The other good thing? Wood uses so many excerpts by way of example you will find yourself wanting to read some of the books he alludes to For me that would be books like The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis Saramago Sabbath's Theater Roth Seize the Day Bellow The Waves Woolf The Rainbow Lawrence and Wittgenstein's Nephew Bernhard to name a fewIt's always embarrassing to see how not so well read you are when you read books about reading isn't it?Anyway the sections of the book give you an idea about where James Wood goes with this Narrating Flaubert and Modern Narrative Flaubert and the Rise of the Flaneur Detail Character A Brief History of Consciousness Sympathy and Complexity Language Dialogue and Truth Convention RealismThe Realism discussion at the end is amusing Nobody uite agrees on what is real and many newer writers like to pile on and dis realism in very realistic ways Whatever I leave that to the philosophers who also disagree on what a chair is This is in the end a book you'll enjoy if you like reading about reading It's big print it's fast and it drops names and uotes like a baby drops food from the high chair What's not to like?


  10. says:

    Between the years 1910 and 1915 R A Torrey and A C Dixon compiled a series of books of essays entitled The Fundamentals With this series Torrey and Dixon set out to give the true Christian absolutely everything that she needed to know in order to have as complete a picture of the Creation as possible Perhaps in the knowledge that they had set for themselves an impossible task Torrey and Dixon contented themselves with holding up the Bible as the perfect truth and counseling their readers to distrust any further commentary ignoring the fact that this was itself commentaryTo a certain extent and for a certain population this was perhaps sound advice It is also of course extraordinarily backward reactionary and dangerous advice It was written in reaction to an ever increasingly abstruse theology that by the dawn of the 20th century reuired a theologian to untangle even the most basic uestions What could a lay person do? Where to turn for answers?This is an extreme analogy to make but James Wood's How Fiction Works is close in spirit if only in spirit to the volumes of Dixon and Torrey's work Wood's book at its core is deeply reactionary and resistant to the impulse for change and it threatens the nascent study of its subject with extinction or at the very least irrelevance in the face of a tradition that becomes all encompassing And this much is obvious or should be with every sentence Though Wood constantly brandishes the umbrella term realism or Realism he means to encompass all of writing up to this point including works that many other critics and freuently their authors as well would not dare to call realist And this in itself is an admirable goal tied to Wood's great facility in explaining why this should be All works operate under the same conditions and deal with the same medium have similar goals in mind why shouldn't they be lumped together? Others have made the same point for instance Robbe Grillet who Wood uotes on this very pointBut this is where Wood's imagination fails him Because he has a very definite idea of fiction's aspirations of the aspirations of each entirely individual and idiosyncratic writer Wood has failed to imagine that there might be something even deeper even fundamental to How Fiction Works He has so fallen under the spell of mimesis of hypotyposis that he refuses to admit that there might be some other goal some other potentiality that neither discounts nor ignores the mimetic uality of fiction to fiction itselfI adduce for proof William Gass's collection of short fiction In the Heart of the Heart of the Country which I feel certain that Wood has read and seems willfully to have forgotten in his desperate search for a scapegoat Gass comes up often in the guise of Wood's straw man largely due to a very short passage in one essay from Gass's very first collection of essays Fiction and the Figures of Life But In the Heart both adheres closely to Wood's ideals and to Gass's theories And to anyone who has read only the Wood this would seem impossible just as an explanation of dinosaurs walking the earth hundreds of millions of years ago would seem impossible to a Fundamentalist But nonetheless it is so At least I am humble enough to say the great majority of mankind believes it to be so This is because Gass's stories do not in any way traverse Wood's ideas of triple writing indeed they exemplify it bring it to altogether new levels but they also do something else something which is at the heart of Gass's essays something that Wood would not acknowledge as even being possible in fictionWood seems to believe that there is nothing beyond the outwardly obvious events and the inwardly intuited experiences of everyday life for the author to seek to represent in fiction because this is all that has been done so far according to his lights And he is bold enough to say that this goes not only for fiction but for all the arts But we know intuitively that this not the case We know this because we know that were it so we could never experience anything new through the arts Even if the feeling is felt only as a great nauseating unease we can recognize that something new something altogether different has happened to us We hope for it because it is a thrill if rather like falling from a great height than one would hope for in real life Without that sense of hope shared by the artist the arts would calcify cease to grow and mutate along with our changing world Or perhaps with the plastic arts concretized the world outside of art would cease to change We will never know because it will never happen Gass's essays for those who would essay them would tell them as much Gass has an extraordinarily brilliant and clear way of explaining very abstract concepts which sadly Wood does not share Gass has ideas to share and wants very badly to share them reuiring him to be absolutely clear and precise if not always immediately read easily intelligle while Wood on the other hand devolves to a kind of divine ecstasy in order to cover over his lack of ideas This ecstasy is something to be admired it is very freuently beautiful and persuasive But it is not therefore a truer picture of fiction What Wood presents is at its essence nothing than a reverse engineered synthesis of fiction to this point in time A synthesis is of necessity reverse engineered of course but as with anything that is reverse engineered it is not durable This unlikely contraption works for its intended purpose only and when called upon for any other purpose whatever flies apart immediately and without any measure of success Wood's synthesis may explain satisfactorily his bloated idea of realism but for how long?Most of the criticism of this book has centered on this very problem and with good reason Wood's ideas of how fiction works admit no light and no thought to shine through them They are hard and fast despite being rather vague precisely because they are reactionary This book is how to read fiction perhaps; certainly not how to write it There is no room for real innovation nor even for any real sustained analysis in Wood's idea of how fiction works Thus he rejects Gass's perspective entirely as he must in order to protect his carefully pruned system from exploding chaotically into the profusion that we can all accept as reality When for example Gass essays The Concept of Character in Fiction he is not whatever Wood claims here attempting to destroy the idea of character in fiction He is simply trying to explain it at a depth that Wood does not even approach As a reader and a critic Wood may be perfectly content to remain at the surface but as a creator the writer who reads this book should beware these ideas will not permit any inuiry into how fiction works They will simply point you back to the great works already written saying That is how it is done No reason to try anything else


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