Sunday, July 25, 2010

How Fiction Works by James Wood

So let us replace the always problematic term “realism” with “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 human activity but are nevertheless harrowingly truthful texts.

How Fiction Works was not what I expected. Because Chris recommended it, I expected it to be drab and lifeless, full of terms like mimesis, queer theory, and death of the author. I was expecting something more like the small book I own titled Literary Theory, which has a bookmark between pages 12 and 13 that will probably never be moved.

But seriously, this book was great. It was extremely readable, probably moreso than something by, say, Chuck Palahniuk, and Wood’s exuberance for his topic really comes through. He’s read everything worth reading apparently, but still seems free of snobbery. This might be the least snobbish nonfiction book about books I’ve ever read.

As far as the content, the book is short, and I don’t feel the need to summarize it, but I really enjoyed the last section of the book, about realism. It tied in closely with a discussion I was having the other day about how some literature seems more true than the truth—that is, how a novel about, say, sexual deviants, can seem more real than a nonfiction work about a real one. It seemed silly to me, even though I’d felt it, but the excerpt at the beginning of this review crystallizes it so clearly, I don’t feel like I can add much. I’d like to force read it to every idiot who’s ever said “I don’t read fiction” with a condescending look on their face. Nonfiction will make you smarter; reading (good) fiction will make you a better person.

So, good book, even though I don’t read nonfiction. If you have any interest in the thesis of the title, check it out.

p.s. When I Google image searched "How Fiction Works", the first result was Chris's cover image from his review for this very site. Moving up, fellas!


Christopher said...

I love this book and am looking forward to having some very long conversations with you about the material within. If you like, we can start with his section about DFW.

Honestly, this book increased my understanding and enjoyment of reading fiction more than anything I've ever read.

Christopher said...

PS check your title

Lula O said...

He definitely did reduce what Joyce calls, “true scholastic stink” to bearable levels. Snobby as he may have seemed at times, he made me take a deeper look, at words themselves, at characters, at the art of the effective metaphor. Some of my favorite parts of the book were when he described the how’s and why’s of New York garbage men calling maggots, “disco rice,” Marilynne Robison's grave, a “weedy little mortality patch,” and Katherine Manfield’s “grandmother saying her prayers like someone rummaging through tissue paper.”

Good stuff.