Sunday, January 25, 2009

How Fiction Works by James Wood

No, not James Woods, acclaimed actor--this book was written by James Wood, acclaimed literary critic. If it had been written by James Woods, I would have enjoyed it a lot more, but as it is, I enjoyed it pretty well, so I guess it's hard to complain.

How Fiction Works is basically a fundamental treatment of what Wood feels are the essentials of the modern novel: dialogue, character, and detail among others, and what makes them work in some books and not in others. It is inspired by similar books, like E.M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel and Milan Kundera's The Art of the Novel, but those books belong to the last century and James seems to have cannily realized that it's time for an update. Also, those books are by novelists; Wood's book is unique in that it comes from a critic's outside--dare I say less biased--perspective.

Outside of Brent and Helen, I have trouble imagining that this book would interest anyone here, though I found it pretty engaging; Wood does an excellent job dissecting the genre and explaining the guts. The book starts, oddly enough, with a discussion of free indirect style, which can be perfunctorily described as the attribution to the narrator words or statements that really belong to a character:

Free indirect style is at its most powerful when hardly visible or audible: "Ted watched the orchestra through stupid tears." In my example, the word "stupid" marks t he sentence as written in free indirect style. Remove it, and we have standard reported thought: "Ted watched the orchestra through tears." The addition of the word "stupid" raises the question: Whose word is this? It's unlikely that I would want to call my character stupid merely for listening to some music in a concert hall. No, in a marvelous alchemical transfer, the word now belongs partly to Ted. He is listening to the music and crying, and is embarrassed--we can imagine him furiously rubbing his eyes--that he has allowed these "stupid" tears to fall. Convert it back into first-person speech, and we have this: "'Stupid to be crying at this silly piece of Brahms,' he thought." But this example is several words longer; and we have lost the complicated presence of the author.

I'll understand if you could care less about free indirect style, but I'm pretty fascinated by what Wood has to say here--especially that an aspect of literature could be so small and indiscernible, but so powerful. Keep an eye out for free indirect style when you read; I think you'll be surprised how omnipresent it really is.

Ultimately, this is a book for book nerds--but it's also quite a bestseller. I had been wondering what makes a piece of literary criticism--not exactly on par with The Da Vinci Code--so popular. I think part of it has to do with the breadth of Wood's topic; which could possibly attract any reasonably curious book-reader (unlike a treatise on gender imagery in the latter works of Poe, or something). Another part is Wood's style, which is smoothly readable and without waste. Wood isn't a novelist, but you wouldn't know it by reading How Fiction Works, which is remarkably uncluttered for a work of non-fiction.

Bonus points: That retro-simple cover is totally sweet and you'll never convince me otherwise.


Meagan said...

you might like Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird. it's another writing manual. i've read parts. maybe i'll read the whole thing and review it on here!

Nathan said...

"Renowned literary critic James Wood staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum's grand gallery."

Christopher said...

I read Bird by Bird, it really reads much more like a "pep talk" for aspiring writers than a dissection of what good writing looks like. But it's pretty good.

Also, Nathan ftw.

Anonymous said...

Wood is, in fact, a novelist, as well as a practicing critic. He published The Book Against God in 2003.

Christopher said...

Well, don't I look like a fool.