How Fiction Works by James Wood – Book Review

Before I picked this up, I knew nothing about who James Wood is; having now finished it, I can tell with absolute certainty, he is one of contemporary criticism’s most gifted and steadfast voices, a lover of literature through and through. How Fiction Works is among the finest examples of that particular branch of non-fiction that examines what goes into the fiction writer’s toolkit, and how it is applied. It is a love letter, partly to the art and craft of writing, partly to the greatest works of literature: of Flaubert and Dostoyevsky and Woolf and a hundred others.

What is remarkable here is the ease with which Wood makes his points; he brings forth one point or another, exemplifies it through the use of concrete examples–picked with the greatest care–from which he draws persuasive arguments. He’ll flitter back and forth between different aspects of a topic–say, character–before he weaves it all together, delivering brilliant insight. And unlike conjurers and magicians, Wood takes the time to explain exactly how it’s done–when he has to. Other times, the examples are so finely chosen, any interpretation would be redundant, such as here:

Ford and Conrad 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.”

What further explanation is necessary? And what better introduction to a character?

Wood has a little something to say about everything, from description to language to character; and–oh!–the things he says about character. I can think of more than one lecturer who, upon reading paragraphs such as the one below, would girlde their loins in preparation for a full-on bout:

The novel is the great virtuoso of exceptionalism: it always wriggles out of the rules thrown around it. And the novelistic character is the very Houdini of that exceptionalism. There is no such thing as “a novelistic character.” There are just thousands of different kinds of people, some round, some flat, some deep, some caricatures, some realistically evoked, some brushed in with the lightest of strokes.

Take that, folks who consider characters functions of language!

The discussion I found most engaging, however, had to do with Wood’s views on realism; he views it not as a genre, but as truth, as “lifeness”:

Realism, seen broadly as truthfulness to the way things are, cannot be mere verisimilitude, cannot be mere lifelikeness, or lifesameness, but what I must call lifeness: life on the page, life brought to different life by the highest artistry. And it cannot be a genre; instead, it makes other forms of fiction seem like genres. For realism of this kind—lifeness—is the origin. It teaches everyone else; it schools its own truants: it is what allows magical realism, hysterical realism, fantasy, science fiction, even thrillers, to exist.

The problem comes in with the use of realism as a genre, you see. Wood here is making waves, pissing off academics all over the place, but if you think this a blunder, rest assured, Wood’s continued poking at this subject proves it’s all quite intentional:

So let us replace the always problematic word “realism” with the much more problematic word “truth” … Once we throw the term “realism” overboard, we can account for the ways in which, say, Kafka’s Metamorphosis and Hamsun’s Hunger and Beckett’s Endgame are not representations of likely or typical human activity but are nevertheless harrowingly truthful texts. This, we say to ourselves, is what it would feel like to be outcast from one’s family, like an insect (Kafka), or a young madman (Hamsun), or an aged parent kept in a bin and fed pap (Beckett). There is still nothing as terrifying in contemporary fiction, not even in the blood-bin of Cormac McCarthy or the sadistic eros of Dennis Cooper, as the moment when Knut Hamsun’s narrator in Hunger, a starving young intellectual, puts his finger in his mouth and starts eating himself. None of us, I hope, has done this, or will ever want to. But Hamsun has made us share it, has made us feel it. Dr. Johnson, in his “Preface to Shakespeare,” reminds us, “Imitations produce pain or pleasure, not because they are mistaken for realities, but because they bring realities to mind.”

Bringing up truth into it…brave man, James Wood.

All joking aside, this is a remarkable work. If you’re at all interested in writing, but uncertain where to start–you won’t go wrong with How Fiction Works. It is an illuminating work.

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