How Fiction Works, by James Wood

imagesIt’s breathtakingly inspiring, within today’s coterie of less-than-well-informed book reviewers, to find one as well versed in what brings the best fiction robustly to life as James Wood. But then he’s also a novelist, essayist, and Harvard lecturer in literature. His book, How Fiction Works, has been widely reviewed in the print press, but it’s apparent to me after reading the book that reviewers either see it as academic and abstract, or as one colleague of mine said, “It left me with the notion that reading his book would be like sticking pins in my eyes.” I want to rectify that view of his book.

I will say that the casual fiction reader, who limits his/her self to the over-popular genre pulp on the best seller lists, may fall asleep reading this book, muttering, “So what?” On the other hand, one doesn’t need to know literary theory or hold an MFA in creative writing to gain insight from Wood’s book. All one needs is an openness—as either reader or writer—to why fiction is an enjoyable and instructive experience.

Wood begins with a simple explanation of Point of View (POV), that stories are best told in the first person (“I fell asleep, but then the butler…”) or third person (“The butler gently shook him awake…”), that such narration may be reliable or unreliable, and quite a bit about the history of modern narrative in fiction. Throughout this section, as in all others, his view of prose teems with examples any reader will find easy to follow and understand.
His view of character development isn’t a common one; he believes either “flat” or “vivid” character development is valid, depending on the writer’s intent in telling the story. Once again, his insights regarding character in fiction are vivid to the point of being liberating.
He talks about the rhythm of writing, something rarely discussed regarding prose, but always a vital part of spoken poetry and oratory.
One area that particularly enlightened me is his depiction of how humor is made to work in fiction, even subtle humor. Here, Wood claims that humor erupts from changing “registers,” in narrative, i.e. unexpected changes of tone, for instance, can bring a reader to laughter.
His view of well-wrought dialogue is one of subtlety and ambiguity, leaving readers with multiple possibilities regarding the characters’ intents in engaging in conversation.
His perception of the many erudite schools of fictional technique resolves to this: “What seems real?” He’s clearly not a fan of the notion that postmodernism in fiction is a necessary step; instead it’s simply one more way of depicting what seems real. His main precept in fiction, then, is one of “live-ness.” He does seem to want to return to Plato’s and Aristotle’s views of fiction as mimesis, or a description or depiction of what is actually real. But once again his views should liberate both readers and writers of fiction in limiting the “what works” of fiction to how a writer successfully uses words and language to make the page come alive.

Clearly, Wood knows his stuff. This is a book I’ll read constantly as I write on future projects, and it’s one both the curious reader and the grappling writer will find invaluable.

Bob Mustin

One Response to “How Fiction Works, by James Wood”

  1. Mary Ann Artrip Says:

    In reading Bob Mustin’s remarks about fiction writing by James Woods, I kept thinking, “Now that’s the way to write a review.” Fantastic job! It makes me want to run right out and buy the book, and read-read-read. Lordy, lordy, when I think of how much I don’t know, it’s downright scary. Thanks, Bob~~

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