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How Fiction Works: Discussion Review

Anne Stameshkin, Greg Schutz, Celeste Ng, Natalie Bakopoulos, and Jeremiah Chamberlin lead a series of discussions on critic James Wood's latest collection of essays, How Fiction Works.


This discussion review was conducted between December 2008 and January 2009 as a series of posts and comments on the FWR blog; here, for your reading pleasure, is our conversation in full.

How Fiction Works Discussion Review: An Introduction

[by Anne Stameshkin]

Over the next week, I will join fellow FWR contributors Greg Schutz, Celeste Ng, Natalie Bakopoulos, and Jeremiah Chamberlin in discussing critic James Wood’s latest collection of essays, How Fiction Works. Feel free to join the conversation by commenting on our blog posts.

In How Fiction Works, Wood approaches the elusive how behind craft by “ask[ing] a critic’s questions and offer[ing] a writer’s answers.” He explores such mysteries as the distinction between narrative and authorial language in order, in his own words, “to reconnect that technique to the world, as Ruskin wanted to connect Tintoretto’s work to how we look at a leaf.”

Wood is a passionate analyzer, which may seem like an oxymoron…but I can’t help but love his impositions of logic on a craft that defies them. His use of terms like “free indirect style” illuminate even if they cannot light the whole of every literary room. Wood’s critical curiosity is tempered by an underlying stubbornness, a streak of superiority, and the occasional lapse into unnecessary cruelty. But that passion! He reads lovingly, choosing passages of startling beauty or subtle effect, then artfully teasing out why they work. I think what seems at first read like superiority is probably impatience…he’s posing these exciting hypotheses, and he longs for readers and writers to catch up and on already.

I read How Fiction Works slowly over the course of this semester, and I think it taught me much more about being a teacher of writing–and a good reader of others’ work–than a writer myself. I’ll elaborate on this in a future post, but in the meantime, I wonder if any other contributors (who teach as well as write) might consider this position in a comment or longer response.

– COMMENTS –

1. Celeste says:

Well put, Anne. One of my main problems with the book was that throughout most of it, Wood argues for things that seem very basic: “Details are important… but not TOO many details. And they have to be the right details.” “The close third person perspective is very versatile.” But maybe these things aren’t always obvious. If writers–and readers–aren’t thinking about these things, they should be, and Wood is right to point them out. His careful explication of his examples are probably the best thing about How Fiction Works. True, they’re more useful to me as a teacher and reader than as a writer. But he reminds me to read carefully and that sometimes, dissecting an example is the best way to explain, well, how fiction works.

Incidentally, he also reminds me about the importance of tone when teaching, but that’s a topic for another day.

2. Jeremy says:

As a fellow teacher of writing, I agree with you both here. In the course of reading Wood’s book I frequently found myself thinking, “This would be a great example of Interiority for my students.” Or, “Here he explains Narrative Distance perfectly.” Whether illuminating the importance of word choice, discussing the mechanics of point of view, or elucidating the range and possibility of characterization, he does so with staggering clarity. I think this is a huge accomplishment, one perhaps easily overlooked because the work is so accessible.

But at times the book did feel to me as though overly positioned by the publisher as a craft text aimed at an audience of younger writers in a classroom, rather than a conversation with fellow writers on the mysteries of the craft. And part of this feeling might have less to do with the content itself (again, I feel that Wood’s great gift as a writer is to illuminate complex ideas with surprisingly clear writing), and more to do with a formatting decision: To break the essay-chapters into tiny, numbered subsections, some only a paragraph or two in length. So while the book is comprised of less than a dozen of these essay-chapters, it has 123 “parts.”

This decision certainly adds to the feeling of accessibility, particularly for student writers and their teachers assigning them reading; I could almost hear myself saying, “Please look at Parts 1-22 in “Narrating” for tomorrow.” And because nearly every one of these parts has a bullet-point style heading associated with it that distills Wood’s primary analysis at that moment on the page–”The Propaganda of Noticing,” “The Untelling Detail,” and “Irrelevant Detail” sum up parts 51-53, respectively–the main ideas are clearly announced. Yet in trying to be helpful this apparatus inadvertently lends a rudimentary tone to the text. As if without these easily-digestible parts and their explanatory headings the book’s audience would be unable to keep track of the development of ideas. (Aside: Might this be what you’re referring to in your last line, Celeste?)

More importantly, though, this numbering of parts creates an abruptness in the reading experience. Each break between the development of ideas begins to feel like a separation. And so instead of being fully engaged in the complex arc of Wood’s ideas as he illuminates a particular line of reasoning, we keep hitting these speed bumps and losing our momentum.

I guess what I’m trying to say without Wood’s gift for clarity and brevity is that at times I felt myself longing for that more expansive, more lyric, more over-arching analysis in the text that I typically associate with this wonderful writer’s work, only to realize that that absence was at least partly an illusion. One manufactured by the apparatus of the book’s layout. Because when I was reading How Fiction Works earlier this week and stumbled upon chapter-essay 5: Character, I realized that I’d read it before–a nearly identical version appeared online in the Saturday, January 26 edition of The Guardian this year, under the title “A Life of Their Own.” I’d liked the essay so much, in fact, that I’d printed it out and saved it. Yet I wasn’t having the same experience on the second read. Why? Other than a few transitionary lines, the only difference I could discern when I compared the two texts side by side was the lack of numbering and headings in The Guardian version. So taking into account mood, barometric pressure, and blood sugar, the only rationale I can come up with for my differing reading reactions seems to be that of layout.

It’s a seeming small difference, I know. But in an art form that relies on rhythm, momentum, transitions, and development of ideas, might these design issues account for at least part of the reason that we each seem to have immediately recognized the work as beneficial for and applicable to those “apprentice” writers in the classroom, but not exactly ourselves? Might this, at least partly, account for Celeste’s reaction that it felt “basic”?

3. Anne says:

Jeremy, I agree that the design/layout/numbered-sectionization of this book was more distracting than helpful. At times, its dual numbering reminded me of battling with the Chicago Manual of Style. (In fact, as I write this, I’m reminded of Louis Menand’s fantastic New Yorker review of the 15th Edition of the CMS, a review in which he explored the impossibility of ever creating a fully helpful style manual: the more rules we create, the more exceptions we run up against. The more complex our technologies, the more ways in which they break down. And etc.

It’s interesting that although Wood has written a novel (which I haven’t read), he writes How Fiction Works more as a critic who has figured something out about writing than as a writer who is figuring it out as he goes. There is something too settled in what he posits, and perhaps his lack of examples from current novels bothers me, too–if this is, in fact, a book for living writers, not students of literature who wonder (on the side) how such lit is made. Is there anyone writing now who will influence the novel’s course so much as much as Proust or Flaubert? And if not, what is stagnating us? I’d love to hear more about that…

4. Jeremy says:

I am very interested in your idea that perhaps much of what Wood posits is “settled,” Anne. It’s an apt word choice. And his approach does feel that way, doesn’t it? I hadn’t considered this as one of the elements adding to the tone of the book, but perhaps this stance of surety rather than questioning also contributes to the feeling that it’s a text less interested in dialoguing with writers who are currently grappling with the endeavor, and more so in teaching those individuals who are either looking for lessons on craft or are thoughtful readers hoping for a clearer understanding of the form.

And certainly the lack of time spent with more contemporary authors adds to the static–”settled,” to use your word again, Anne–sense of the book. Despite Wood’s clear engagement with the medium, his enthusiasm for his subject matter, and his genuinely unabashed love of fiction, I was rather surprised by how little attention was paid to where fiction is or where it might be going. Not just in the Twenty-First Century, but even in the latter half of the Twentieth. The title is, after all, in the present tense: How Fiction Works. Not, How Fiction Came to Be. Yet most of the book’s attention seems focused on the Nineteenth Century, despite Wood’s excellent and prolific criticism on contemporary fiction that he’s published elsewhere of late.

True, part of Wood’s self-appointed task in this text is that of geneaologist, tracing our collective origins to Flaubert as the father of the Modern Narrative. Yet isn’t it surprising that he seems less interested in Flaubert’s descendants, the inheritors of this mantle? Forgetting for a moment all issues concerning the contentions of “realist” and “conventional” writers versus “experimental” or “non-narrative” ones (though perhaps we’ll get to this later), I would have loved to see the same close analysis that Wood pays to Flaubert and James and Dostoevsky applied to the craft elements and aesthetics of some of our contemporaries. True, passing references are made to Zadie Smith and David Foster Wallace, but only a dozen books mentioned within these pages were published in the last twenty years, and their inclusion (as well as their treatment) is peripheral at best.

The question, then, might be the following: What expectations has this book made, and has it met them? For it seems that much of what we’re discussing (and perhaps criticizing Wood for) could be boiled down to what we’d anticipated finding between the pages. But perhaps the stylistic quandries of contemporary writers and the trajectory of contemporary fiction aren’t what Wood is interested in addressing here. If the aim of this text is to serve as a primer on the origins of Modern Narrative, as well as a close, articulate study of those craft techniques that made the Realist Greats “great,” then I’d say the book has accomplished its goal.

So leaving the claim of the title aside for the time being (which we addressed above), how does Wood’s following statement in the Preface strike you: “If the book has a larger argument, it is that fiction is both artifice and verisimilitude, and that there is nothing difficult in holding together these two possibilities. That is why I have tried to give the most detailed accounts of the technique of that artifice–of how fiction works–in order to reconnect that technique to the world, as Ruskin wanted to connect Tintoretto’s work to how we look at the leaf.”

Philosophically I am of the same mind as Wood here; I don’t see a contradiction either. But when I encountered this passage I think I came away from it expecting that the book would address this and similar issues over a broader spectrum of time, illuminating the form’s varied practitioners in relationship to this driving question.

And perhaps this invariably leads us back to the question of audience: Who is it, and to what purpose? But I’d also be curious to hear if there were other issues/elements that you felt were overlooked or under-examined by the book. Again, I don’t feel it’s fair to criticize a text for not doing what it never claimed it had set out to do. But if there are gaps or missed opportunities, where do you find them?

5. Jeremy says:

And by “you” here in the final paragraph I mean the collective “you,” of course.

6. Greg says:

I agree: “To what purpose?” is an important question for this discussion. The title is How Fiction Works, but many readers seem to approach this book expecting it to be How to Write Fiction that Works. To me at least, it seems that, though he’s produced a novel (which I haven’t read, either), Wood is speaking here as a critic and a voracious and opinionated reader, not as a fiction writer. What lessons on the craft of fiction there are to be found here must be inferred from more theoretical discussions.

Consider Wood’s discussion of “free indirect style” and psychic distance. The central question that Wood asks is, “Can we reconcile the author’s perceptions with the character’s perception and language?” Note the point-of-view: “we” are approaching the text as readers and critics here, not as authors ourselves.

And though Wood has a lot to say in response to this question, one topic he never touches is upon is why and when an author might consciously manipulate psychic distance, moving into and out of free indirect style. (A famous example of this occurs in Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”—that “reasonably” in the third-to-last paragraph, the one break in an otherwise objective, cinematic POV.) What Wood provides is a good discussion about how to read variable psychic distances as a critic, but not how to decide, as an author, when to drop into free indirect style and when to pull back to a more objective distance.

To me, it seems wisest to approach How Fiction Works as a book of history and criticism, not one of craft. Jeremiah has it right, I think: this book is “a primer on the origins of Modern Narrative, as well as a close, articulate study of those craft techniques that made the Realist Greats ‘great.’”

Given this approach, I’m not as troubled as Anne or Jeremiah about the relative dearth of contemporary examples here. And in his defense, Wood does make the case that Flaubert, for example, is still essentially modern: discussing a passage from A Sentimental Education, he writes, “This was published in 1869, but might have appeared in 1969; many novelists still sound essentially the same.” Before we complain about the lack of recent novels cited here, we must first make the case that discussing more recent novels would allow Wood to make important points about “modern realist narration” that he’s unable to make via Flaubert, Dostoevsky, et al.

7. Greg says:

Of course, I should add that if Flaubert can still dominate a discussion of realism the way he does in this book, then I second Anne’s questions above: “Is there anyone writing now who will influence the novel’s course so much as much as Proust or Flaubert? And if not, what is stagnating us?”

I have a few thoughts, but I think I’ve rambled on enough for the moment. Anyone else care to jump in first?

8. Jeremy says:

First, I love this moment you refer to in “Hills Like White Elephants,” Greg–that glimpse of near-interiority when he carries the bags to the other side of the station and then stops to have an Anis at the bar before going back to her. It’s oddly revelatory, isn’t it? In no small part due to the absolute restraint of the rest of the piece. Though I might argue that there’s a second moment like this, when she walks away from the table on the previous page. “The girl stood up and walked to the end of the station,” the paragraph begins. And then, a few lines later: “The shadow of a cloud moved across the field of grain and she saw the river through the trees.” Lovely! The definitiveness of that simple phrase “she saw” versus, say, “the river was suddenly visible through the trees,” signals consciousness to me. We are seeing the landscape through her, not simply what she might have seen had she looked in that direction. To say nothing of the metaphorical moment of clarity implied by her now being able to see one thing beyond the other, considering the context of their conversation.

And in light of this little moment of shared appreciation, I would like to recognize that this is something that I absolutely loved about Wood’s book–his attention to and acknowledgment of the profound and exciting effect that a singular word choice like this can have on a text. I felt a great kinship in his enthusiasm about these seemingly small matters at many points throughout How Fiction Works.

That digression aside, I would like to return to the more central conversation about whether there “should” have been more recent novels examined in this book or not. Perhaps, as Greg suggests, “should” has nothing to do with it–if Wood can illuminate “modern realist narration” without moving much beyond these classic authors, then perhaps we have little room to criticize. Yet since we’ve just been talking about issues concerning point of view, what about the seeming lack of discussion examining contemporary books like Jennifer Egan’s fantastic novel Look At Me, which, while decidedly “realistic” in nearly all aspects of stylistic technique, “violates” traditional point of view, in her case by having both 1st person and 3rd person narration in the text? I know this isn’t revolutionary or experimental, per se. But it seems to me that failing to examine work like this that simultaneously operates within and without the parameters of “realism” is a missed opportunity, if nothing else. For what is more fundamental than perspective and point of view? Everything hinges on authorial stance, on the angle of the telling. Yet while a book like Egan’s subverts this fundamentally, I would never think to call the novel anything other than “modern realist narration.”

Now, let me be the first to offer this quick disclaimer: Exceptions to the rule prove nothing. I’ve read way too many student papers arguing that “College isn’t Necessary for Success” by trotting out Bill Gates as an example to know that this type of logic yields meager results. So I don’t wish our conversation to devolve into merely “What about this book?” or “What about that one?” One could find an endless supply of “realistic” texts that bend or subvert some “rule” of fiction and which, thereby, should have deserved Wood’s attention. But at the same time I do think that these broader “variations” on the form, to use Egan’s novel as an example, would have been worth the attention of a book bearing this title. Otherwise, perhaps “The Fundamentals of Fiction” would have been more fitting?

Ok, if nothing else we’ll have thoroughly interrogated what this book is called by the time this conversation is over…But now that I’ve taken more than my turn, I’d like to hear those thoughts on influence and stagnation that Greg mentioned, as well as other ideas folks might have on these related topics.

How Fiction Works Discussion Review: Wood Echoing Wood

[by Greg Schutz]

How Fiction Works is simultaneously a gloss on the history of what James Wood calls “modern realist narration” and an encapsulation of much of Wood’s criticism to date. That is to say, in charting realism’s development, Wood revisits many subjects from his two previous books of essays, The Broken Estate and The Irresponsible Self.

Much of what I admire in Wood’s past criticism is on display again here. Yet the way in which Wood repurposes older material occasionally rankles. Consider, for example, the excellent opening of his introduction to Saul Bellow’s Collected Stories:

Every writer is eventually called a “beautiful writer,” just as all flowers are eventually called pretty. Any prose above the most ordinary is applauded; and “stylists” are crowned every day, of steadily littler kingdoms. Amidst this busy relativity, it is easy to take for granted the immense stylistic powers of Saul Bellow . . .

Here is the same metaphor, retooled for How Fiction Works:

We must proceed on the assumption that almost all prose popularly acclaimed as beautiful . . . 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 nice.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the same flowers appearing in both books (they appear also in Wood’s essay on Bellow in The Irresponsible Self). But part of what I admire about the first passage is its seamless movement from general to specific—the metaphor carves a niche for the analysis that follows. Such movements are common in Wood’s essays, but rarer in How Fiction Works: the second passage starts general and stays that way, and so the lovely functionality of those flowers is lost.

The ambitious scope of How Fiction Works necessitates a degree of generality, but Wood’s prose is filled with echoes of his essays, inviting comparisons that, to my mind, are not always in the new book’s favor. But what do others think? Has familiarity with Wood’s previous criticism—or a lack thereof—affected your experience with this book?

– COMMENTS –

1. Celeste says:

I haven’t read any of Wood’s criticism, and I actually wonder if I would have a more positive view of How Fiction Works if I had. Much of the book is written in a tone that smacks of superiority, as if we should just take his word for it all because he’s so very learned. I think Walter Kirn’s review in the New York Times put it aptly: “[Wood implies] that his knowing and seeing are of a peculiarly high degree and ought to prove persuasive and sufficient simply because he’s known and seen so much.”

If I were more familiar with Wood’s other work, I might be more willing to
(A) believe that he is exceptionally learned and that I should hang on his every word, or
(B) overlook his tone because I know that there’s real substance underneath.

Knowing nothing about Wood when I opened the book, though, I found the superior tone hard to stomach and many of his points less insightful than I’d expected. It will be interesting to read some of his criticism after reading How Fiction Works, and to re-read How Fiction Works post-criticism and see if my perceptions of it change.

2. Greg says:

I completely understand your reaction, Celeste, and it’s one of the reasons I wouldn’t recommend How Fiction Works as an introduction to Wood’s criticism. There’s a hectoring tone to certain passages that I can imagine rubbing some readers the wrong way. But I think this isn’t an attribute of Wood’s criticism in general, but rather an artifact of the book’s format (which has been discussed at length in another thread) and, as I touched upon above, its generality.

The pressure is on, in this book, for Wood to make grand and definitive statements about, well, how fiction works. And making lots of grand and definitive statements is a good way to “smack of superiority.” Moreover, I think the book’s structure—all those short, numbered sections—lends a punchiness to some of Wood’s points that simply shouldn’t be there (and which affects tone, as well). Altogether, I end up feeling a little disappointed by all the material I recognize in How Fiction Works that has been drawn from Wood’s essays and which often feels uncomfortable in its new form and function.

Jeremiah has already commented in another thread about how one of Wood’s essays on character from The Guardian has been transplanted nearly wholesale into How Fiction Works, and how the book’s format has negatively affected his reading of the material. The original essay is available online here, and the book’s corresponding discussion takes place in sections 72-80; I’d encourage readers to compare the two. Which do you prefer?

How Fiction Works sees Wood in full-on synthesis mode, but his criticism is always at its best, to my mind, when he’s performing tight, contained analyses of particular authors and works. We catch glimpses of that in this book, when he offers close readings of passages from literature, but in How Fiction Works, analysis is always performed in the service of large synthetic points, and I find myself missing the sustained analysis present in a good James Wood essay.

As an example of what “a good James Wood essay” looks like, I’d point readers toward “Movable Types” an essay on characters in, and translations of, War and Peace, which appeared in The New Yorker about a year ago. It’s one of my favorite essays of Wood’s, and perhaps a more favorable introduction to his criticism than How Fiction Works.

3. Jeremy says:

I absolutely agree with Greg here. So much so, in fact, I’m not quite sure why I’m bothering to post this other than to say, “Well put.” In particular, I too feel that Wood is at his best as a critic when he’s teasing out very delicate threads of analysis. Or honing in on a specific element/technique/component of an author’s work. You see this quite clearly in his Guardian and New Yorker pieces (and the one Greg mentions here is one of my favorites as well), but also in his 1998 collection, The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief. Many of these essays are quite brief–less than 10 pages–and their subjects range from Sir Thomas More to W.G. Sebald, D.H. Lawrence to Toni Morrison. And what I most appreciate about them, which is exactly what I appreciate about Wood’s book reviews, is the specificity of their inquiry. There is something very gratifying to me about such a sustained examination of a singular aspect of an author’s work, and the conclusions that might be drawn about not only the writer’s craft, but also their artistic sensibilities and philosophies.

Yes, narrowness like this runs the risk of myopia. And by privileging certain elements of a text so dramatically over others Wood might come across as dismissive at times. But I enjoy–and missed here–the immersive quality of his other writing. And I think (again) that Greg is absolutely right in his assessment that How Fiction Works might not be the best vehicle to showcase Wood’s talents, whether that has to due with the artificial structuring of the book itself, or the fact that making these types of broader claims in the service of “larger synthetic points” doesn’t illuminate his greatest strengths as a critic. For I do feel that Wood is one of the greatest readers of and writers on fiction at work today.

How Fiction Works Discussion Review: Telling vs. Untelling Details

[by Celeste Ng]

In his chapter on “Detail,” Wood takes on a standby of Fiction I: the telling detail. Details, we’re usually told, should be significant, not gratuitous; they should give us some particular insight into the character or the setting. If there are telling details, Wood suggests, there must be untelling details as well. But do “irrelevant” or “untelling” details really exist?

Wood’s main whipping boy here is Barthes, discussing a barometer in Flaubert’s A Simple Heart:

The piano, Barthes argues, is there to suggest bourgeois status, the boxes and cartons perhaps to suggest disorder. But why is the barometer there? The barometer denotes nothing; it is an object “neither incongruous nor significant”; it is apparently “irrelevant.” Its business is to denote reality, it is there to create the effect, the atmosphere of the real. It simply says: “I am the real.”

Although Wood quibbles with Barthes’s distinction between denoting and signifying reality, he eventually agrees: the barometer is there to make the story seem real. (His attempt to distinguish their positions—”The barometer doesn’t say ‘I am the real’ so much as ‘Am I not just the sort of thing you would find in such a house?'”— is pure semantics.) Barometers are “dully typical” objects, Wood concludes, which “tell us something about the kinds of houses they are in: middle class rather than upper class; a certain kind of conventionality…” In short, the barometer is convincing and necessary stage-dressing.

Essentially, Wood appears to conclude that there is no such thing as irrelevant detail. Life itself is full of detail, and including apparently superfluous details in our fiction makes our fiction look more like real life. “The barometer, the puddle, the adjustment of the blindfold, are not ‘irrelevant,'” Wood says. “These details would obviously be exchangeable with other, similar details; they are not crucial to anything. They would be there to make us feel that this is lifelike.” (my emphasis)

As a writer, do you find Wood’s argument about detail to be revolutionary? If you’re a detail freak, do you now feel liberated to put more in to create “the atmosphere of the real”? Or is Wood simply stating the obvious here—that some details can be “telling,” but that often, details are needed simply to make the fictional world seem more realistic and lifelike?

– COMMENTS –

1. Anne says:

First, I agree that it’s hard to classify details as telling or untelling, relevant or irrelevant; there is a spectrum, I think, between the detail that matters absolutely (it is integral to the story’s plot), and one that does little more than the relevant but subtler “stage-dressing” (the aforementioned barometer…or hell, even the acknowledgment of shoes filling with water in bad weather). In between, I’d propose there are details that we can choose to read into or not, to varying degrees: those “life of objects” details (carrying negligible poundages of symbolic or emotional weight), characterization details (from physical attributes to motivations and tics and symptoms), and so on.

And if none of these aforementioned types are actually “irrelevant,” there are certainly additional details in many novels that feel so. Such descriptions paint a scene but leave us asking “why?” or “what’s the point?” They lead us astray or bore us to bed. They are too tangential…the author is shirking his or her own story, distracted by a whim. And while some writers are so lovely with language that I’ll gladly while away time wherever they take me, such excursions rarely enhance the overall experience of a book. Good details are artfully chosen or weeded out, even seemingly random ones; if there are too many superfluous descriptions–if the author doesn’t know where to focus and where to pan out–we have a larger problem.

I like what Wood says about the expectation of the modern/contemporary novel that it will always “carry more detail than it needs.” But how much more? I’ll quote Wood again here: “James would probably argue that while we should indeed try to be the kind of writer on whom nothing is lost, we have no need to be the kind of writer on whom everything is found.”

In workshopping my students’ stories, I find it very hard to explain why some details are superfluous (truly irrelevant) and others seemingly random in just the right way. It’s an in-context, case-by-case kind of problem. It’s something that, like good writing, we say we just know when we see it.

In his discussion of detail, Wood is trying to be more helpful, more prescriptive, to offer a better barmonter (ha) than the gut feeling of someone with a good ear (pardon the mixed bodily metaphors). Of course such prescriptiveness raises our hackles. Every time anyone comes up with a hypothesis about writing, a rule for what works or does not, we can find exceptions to it. Even “be specific” and “show, don’t tell” (the two most golden of rules) can be misleading–for instance, Wood’s example of a man groping for a nutcracker as it slips through his hands into dishwater, how in that grasping moment it works beautifully to call it a “leggy thing,” the vaguest word there is.

As we write, do we know good, fitting details as we see them? I’d venture to say we don’t as we draft–or at least that we’re not thinking through these questions logically yet. We often write a detail because in some unconscious way it matters, and in editing such mattering may be a more conscious concern. In editing we often do have to strive for that mysterious balance between the familiar and the unfamiliar, the paradox of the quirky-yet-realistic character, etc. But can we hold up a scene and use Wood’s (or James’s) standards about detail to fix it?

2. Preeta Samarasan says:

I feel woefully ill-equipped to join this discussion, since I haven’t read the book — but I just wanted to say that I think “thing” is one of the most underrated words in the English language, when it’s in good hands. Just look at the way Seamus Heaney uses it, or Michael Cunningham sometimes, or, er, any of a number of writers whose names escape me right now but whose use of the word “thing” makes me catch my breath when I encounter it.

Oh — and on the question of detail, to which I’ve devoted some thought — obviously, it’s not possible to say how much detail a narrative needs or doesn’t needs. There’s no absolute rule, and that’s why it’s such a difficult thing to teach. I’m just repeating what you said, Anne — but sometimes I really do feel that it all comes down to language. That it’s not so much the detail itself that earns its place, but the language in which it’s described. I thought about this a lot when reading Oscar and Lucinda, a book that took me a good two years to wade through. It’s thick with detail, but how I loved those details! They made the book. I think you hit it on the head when you said that a detail can be “seemingly random in just the right way.” I think a narrative that shifts point of view a lot almost *needs* a huge amount of detail so that you feel grounded in each character’s perspective. Whereas when there’s one “guiding consciousness,” perhaps dense detail seems less relevant.

3. Tori says:

Like Preeta, I also haven’t read the book but will weigh in anyway. :)

I am won over by the idea that all details are relevant, but some are more relevant than others. Each reader has her own level of tolerance for details–I personally love the way they contribute to atmosphere and their very suggestiveness. That said, I know others who get impatient (a book club discussion of The Night Watch springs to mind here). Though each detail adds something, not all are necessary for a successful book.

And, of course, the more details an author adds, the more he or she needs to make sure they all add up; they need to be the RIGHT details.

4. Natalie says:

Although they come at different points of the book, I think that Wood’s discussion of the telling versus untelling detail ties in nicely with both his thoughts on character-appropriate metaphor and on narration, so I thought perhaps I’d continue here instead of starting a new post; it seems in a way a character-appropriate metaphor is in itself a kind of telling detail. He writes, early on, in the section on narration:

“On the one hand, the author wants to have his or her own words, wants to be the master of a personal style; on the other hand, narrative bends toward its characters and their habits of speech. The dilemma is most acute in first-person narration, which is generally a nice hoax: the narrator pretends to speak to us, while in fact the author is writing to us, and we go along with the description happily enough. Even Faulkner’s narrators in As I Lay Dying rarely sound much like children or illiterates.” (30)

And then he later goes on to question “how the stylist manages to be a stylist without writing over his or her characters. Metaphor that is “successful” in a poetic sense but that is at the same time character-appropriate metaphor—the kind of metaphor that this particular character or community would produce—is one way of resolving the tension between author and character.” (211)

But what about the tension *within* one character? I’m talking perhaps about what the character is able to verbally express in dialogue and what he or she is able to access interiorly, or abstractly? That is, a writer must use language to capture what it feels like to be another character, to imagine another’s state. But what if that state has no access to language: certainly there are other realms of thought that are not language based. And sometimes I think the beauty of interiority and of this sort of character-appropriate detail/metaphor is the discrepancy between how a character acts and speaks and what he or she thinking or imagining.
We, as writers, are putting thoughts into words. But our thoughts, our imaginings, aren’t always language based; the artifice of fiction is making them so. So perhaps we’re not using language/detail/metaphor to only show what something *is* like, but what it *feels* like (I’ll discuss this more in my next post so I don’t ramble on here too much). Interiority doesn’t have to be a sentence-by-sentence thought process. Doesn’t Darl, from As I Lay Dying, portrayed as a bit slow, or dim-witted, in his actions and words himself come alive when Faulker gives us his internal point of view as such? (And is it character appropriate or not? In what sense)?

“The lantern sits on a stump. Rusted, grease-fouled, its cracked chimney smeared on one side with a soaring smudge of soot, it sheds a feeble and sultry glare up the trestles and the boards and the adjacent earth. Upon the dark ground the chips look like random smears of soft pale paint on a black canvas. The boards look like long smooth tatters torn from the flat darkness and turned backside out.” (Faulkner 75)

5. Natalie says:

And, on another note: I like the ideas expressed in the first post about the distinction between looking at the book as a writers’ craft manual or as a book of literary criticism, and I think it’s an important distinction. And I think we can perhaps even look at it here, in the context of the detail. Because there is the “telling detail” chosen by the writer, and this is artistry, artifice, craft, whatever you’d like to call it. Then there are the details and resulting themes up for argument and analysis by critics, things we really may not have thought of as writers but that still have a place for analysis (I really didn’t mean to have him emasculated! He just *really* lost his pants at that party!). Some of the details we choose as writers will perhaps be too obvious, or go unnoticed, while other seemingly innocuous or inconspicuous ones may be the thread that holds an entire piece of criticism together. I think what Wood does so well is move laterally between both the writer’s intention and the critic’s analysis. This perhaps is why we need both artists and critics (not that anyone is arguing to get rid of one of the other): to continually illuminate, to keep a conversation going, to contextualize and analyze the connections within not only a writer’s own work but also concerning his or her place in the overall canon.

How Fiction Works Discussion Review: “Realism” in Fiction

[by Natalie Bakopoulos]
The chapter/essay of How Fiction Works I found most intriguing was the last one: “Truth, Convention, and Realism”; the issues touched on within could easily be the subject of an entire book. What I find the most perplexing is coming to a definition of “realism” in the first place. Is realism truth? Mimesis? Traditional narration?

Wood begins the section by citing the novelist Rick Moody, who says that contemporary literature has become dull and needs “a kick in the ass”; his disapproval seems to be aimed more at structure and style than content. Yes, sometimes a novel’s conflict-climax-resolution check mark form can be predictable, or too neat, or too expected; I’m not arguing against this. But as humans, don’t we crave build-up, and, well, climax? I don’t mean to drag our conversation into the gutter, but am I traditional for still wanting, after hours of fun and interesting, creative foreplay, some sort of release? Then again, I don’t believe that it’s the artist’s duty to give the people what they want, but I do think even the artist, too, finds some satisfaction in this model.

That said, this “satisfaction” doesn’t have to come in the traditional sense of conventional dramatic arc or narration. Perhaps experimental fiction is arguing against convention (and realism finds comfort, tradition, art, in a sort of convention) or against holding as the truest form something simply because it is the predecessor to something else. What I don’t like about the Experimental school’s criticism of the Realist is that it somehow seems to imply that experimental fiction is imaginative, realistic is not; experimental fiction is artistically innovative while realistic is just plain lazy.

Ben Marcus writes about the role of experimental fiction, and what he sees as its eclipse by “narrative realism,” in his Harper’s essay “Why Experimental Fiction Threatens to Destroy Publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and Life as We Know It” (October 2005). While this essay, Franzen’s ideas to which he’s responding, and Cynthia Ozick’s response to both (“Literary Entrails: The Boys in the Alley, the Disappearing Readers, and the Novel’s Ghostly Twin”) are enough to inspire a separate discussion, I couldn’t help but think of them all while reading this chapter by Wood.

While I don’t quite follow Marcus’s definition of realism to begin with—he seems to be contradicting himself a bit—I do like his words here: “It is arguably sublime when a text creates in us desires we did not know we had, and then enlarges those desires without seeming desperate to please us.” But it seems this surprise, this satisfaction, can come in many forms: through simple or ornate language, familiar or unexpected shape. A text whose language is lyrical can still have narrative; a text whose content is so-called experimental can still some sort of dramatic convention, and a text that is not plot driven can still have causality.

Wood also paraphrases the idea Aristotle brings up in his Poetics: the questions fiction should be concerned with is not did it happen, but could it have happened. I’d like to add that perhaps art is not really concerned with what something is like, but what it feels like. A Rothko or a Rivera or a Vermeer does this. Perhaps this is why a writer like George Saunders, with his hyper-real, satirical portrayals, is still able to imbue his work with such emotional resonance. Maybe Wood is a proponent of realism not perhaps in the sense of tradition (though I agree he is quite comfortable with tradition) as much as he is an advocate for the simple authenticity of art. I love the last few lines of the book: they seem to rise up from the page:

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….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 had yet grasped; as if life itself were always on the verge of becoming conventional.

– COMMENTS –
1. Jeremy says:

I, too, found the final chapter of How Fiction Works one of the most interesting portions of Wood’s book. For here is one of the few moments in the text where he actually engages the rest of the fiction community. Though I must say I was rather surprised that he mentions neither Jonathan Franzen nor Ben Marcus in this essay-chapter, to say nothing of Cynthia Ozick who–to my mind–so eloquently shifted the literary conversation from a turf war about whose fiction “matters” more to a broader and more important question: Who will step back to connect and make sense of the work being produced at this moment in history? The reason certainly can’t be because he’s not willing to name names; after all, he points quite quickly to Rick Moody and Patrick Giles, and soon after Barthes and Gass. So perhaps it’s simply the fact that Cynthia Ozick dubbed Wood as one of the most important and influential critics working today in this essay Natalie refers to, and for the sake of decorum he felt obliged to circumvent the conversation entirely.

Too bad, in my mind. Because it seems quite obvious that Wood is trying to argue that there really isn’t that huge a difference between the camps as one might think. Thereby, to more directly address Marcus, who’s accepted the job of representative by throwing the gauntlet at Franzen’s feet, would seem to make his argument even stronger. And I think ultimately that this is perhaps what should matter most. As Natalie so rightly describes, we really do read principally to understand what it feels like to be alive, what it feels like to live. And though it is somewhat a trick of semantics on Wood’s part to replace “realism” with “truth” as a means to subvert this argument, I applaud his move. For as a reader who’s equally content (and enthralled by) reading Saunders or Tolstoy, Marquez or Steinbeck, I’ve never seen the need to delineate or divide fiction by “types.” Ironically, of course, this is exactly what both Marcus and Wood are arguing for–neither wants what they love to be shit on. So perhaps by calling it “truth,” and judging the effectiveness of work on that alone, we can get beyond the need of validation and back to the business of making art.

2. Anne says:

Yes, “truth” works better than “realism” in this discussion…and I’ll add that truthiness doesn’t fly so well in fiction as it does in the news.

Perhaps what Wood argues for best in this book is how fiction feels, or how it works to evoke (rather than dictate) feeling; both this post and Jeremy’s (12/21) suggest this conclusion from different angles, and I agree.

That particular realist vs. experimentalist lit-brawl drove me crazy! Everything always seems to come back to defamiliarization (I like Wood’s discussions with Shlovksy–though Baxter’s are even more enticing)…the best writers always straddle or defy such categories, making the familiar strange (Tolstoy) or the strange familiar (Saunders – perfect example…the worlds in his stories, regardless of their tone, feel true)–and these writers each do both, really. Re: the aforementioned scuffle, I do understand frustrations with work that seems experimental only for its own sake, as with the idea that doing something innovative is more important than doing something well or interesting. But for every piece written backwards from a chicken’s POV, there’s a traditional “realistic” novel that seems to have been painted by number.

The biggest trouble with the Franzen vs. Marcus shouting match is that it fixates on what’s wrong with fiction today, and there’s so much wonderful and right with it that I wish writers and critics would talk more about what is good and why. Oh, and how we can get people to read more of it? Part of that question is how it works when it’s working well, and part of that question is why readers (both writers and non-writers) respond to it as they do. How does fiction work to inspire that glorious feeling that Wood experienced, that Natalie experienced, that I experienced reading that divine passage by Marilynne Robinson?

How Fiction Works Discussion Review: Fiction and Social Change

[by Jeremiah Chamberlin]

Fiction can change the world. Now that I’ve dropped that lead balloon on my foot, allow me to leave it there temporarily as penance for not only opening with such a clichéd adage, but also a self-aggrandizing one. Worse yet, I believe it. Deeply. Despite how hackneyed a statement, fiction has the potential to change our world. Perhaps not always in the same way as clean drinking water or penicillin, but alter our lives it can. And powerfully so.

James Wood touches on this phenomenon in his essay-chapter “Sympathy and Complexity.” He opens with an anecdote about a Mexican police chief who compiled a reading list for his police force, the goal of which he claimed was to make them “better citizens” (169). In particular, the chief felt that reading would allow his officers “to discover lives lived with similar commitment,” which would thereby make them “more committed to the values they have pledged to defend” (170). In short, he wanted them to put themselves in other people’s shoes, if I might introduce yet another sentimental cliché.

We’re on such soggy ground here, in fact, that Wood feels the need to address the topic, saying, “How quaintly antique this sounds” (170). But I think he’s secretly a devotee, as am I. And others have taken the idea a step further, believing that reading the lives of others can not only make us more sympathetic as individuals, but that that sympathy can be a catalyst for real social change. Specifically, that it might be a part of a peace movement. Because it’s harder to kill people whose literature you’ve read, whose lives have been made real and vividly imagined for you. And so building on this philosophy that books can be an important vehicle for social change, a collective of independent store owners and publishers have recently founded an initiative called “Reading the World” to do just that. Their goal is to introduce American audiences to more international authors, and, of course, the lives of their subjects.

But in order for that work to move us, for us to care deeply enough about the lives of others, we must encounter magic. And where does the magic reside? Language. For this is what creates the world by transcending it. I think it is no coincidence that the essay-chapter “Language” follows “Sympathy and Complexity.” And I also think it is important that Wood points out in the closing of the latter that the most effective work “does not provide philosophical answers…” but instead “gives the best account of the complexity of our moral fabric” (178).

This is exactly right, I think. Because for fiction to truly reach us in a meaningful way, it must be free of agenda. Its goal must simply be to capture what it feels like to be alive. To tap into some sort of consciousness that gives us a new way of seeing the world. And I can think of no better example here to end with than the passage from Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead that Wood quotes. She writes:

This morning a splendid dawn passed over our house on its way to Kansas. This morning Kansas rolled out of its sleep into a sunlight gradually announced, proclaimed throughout heaven—one more of the very finite number of days that this old prairie has been Kansas, or Iowa. But it has all been one day, that first day. Light is constant, we just turn over in it. So every day is in fact the selfsame evening and morning. My grandfather’s grave turned into the light, and the dew on his weedy little mortality patch was glorious. (184)

Wood adores this final phrase: Weedy little mortality patch. And it is a good one. The language is fine, indeed. But it is the preceding lines that I find even more enviable and astonishing. For I shall never envision sunrise or sunset in the same way again, never see the demarcation of day and night as quite so clear. “Light is constant, we just turn over in it.” It is a humbling image.

– COMMENTS –
1. Brad Green says:

Wonderful post. I’m warm as good shot of Rum down the throat reading this. I think a lot of younger writers…hell, people even, are weary and frustrated with fiction. There’s a newer strand of internet literature that often seems to abandon reason and meaning, as if those things can not have influence outside the solipsistic sphere within which they were created.

If fiction can change a person, fiction can change society. The program outlined here sounds wonderful.

Thanks for the article!

2. Greg says:

I’m sure Jeremy will find himself in sympathetic company here. I recently confessed my own fiction-can-change-the-world idealism on this website, in an essay-review of J. Mitchell Morse’s The Irrelevant English Teacher (a book I’m continuing to promote to all who’ll listen).

Wood notes that the Mexican police chief’s justification for his reading list “has taxonomized three aspects of the experience of reading fiction: language, the world, and the extension of our sympathies toward other selves.” But Jeremy’s right, I think, to push beyond that taxonomy here—calling attention to language as the bedrock medium through which literature provides us our view of a fictional world and elicits our sympathy for fictional others. Morse would surely agree: one of the central assertions of The Irrelevant English Teacher is that appreciation of artful language inoculates the reader against artlessness and, by extension, against bankrupt ideologies.

(Counterarguments exist, of course. There’s always Harold Bloom: “You cannot teach someone to love great poetry if they come to you without such love. How can you teach solitude?” In other words, to what extent can receptivity to the lessons of literature be consciously cultivated?)

“For [language] is what creates the world by transcending it”: I like this very much. And the passage from Gilead demonstrates that transcendence—if not of the world itself, than of our comfortable quotidian ways of thinking about it—perfectly.

Here, this discussion seems to connect to Wood’s chapter on “Truth, Convention, and Realism,” which Natalie has discussed. Doesn’t Robinson’s startling image—the eternal light of the first day of creation, within which the Earth merely rotates—qualify as what Wood calls “lifeness: life on the page, life brought to different life by the highest artistry”? (Isn’t part of “lifeness,” in other words, that “transcendence” Jeremy spoke of?) And if, as Wood says, one charge leveled against “realism” is that its conventions have congealed into genre, promoting laziness among readers and writers alike, doesn’t a passage like Robinson’s demonstrate that, in the hands of a master practitioner, “realism” can still burst the bonds of its own conventions and deliver readers into wonder, strangeness, and, yes, even reality?

How Fiction Works Discussion Review: Free Indirect Style

[by Anne Stameshkin]

I’ve been trying to read Muriel Barbery’s critically acclaimed novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog, and while I’m relishing many of the author’s ideas, they feel to me like just that–the author’s ideas, not ones that belong to the book’s characters; a wealthy pre-teen and middle-aged concierge spend at least the first section of Hedgehog (I’m on p. 114) hiding their gifted selves from everyone they know while sharing them, mostly in monologue/journaling style, with us. Their use of language is almost identical, as is their attitude toward (and analysis of) the world around them. So much of the book feels like an experiment, an argument against our society’s encouragement of mediocrity (which, hey, I couldn’t agree with more). And Hedgehog‘s alternating first-person confidences feel anything but personal; the characters, their beliefs, and the small, lovely epiphanies they record are ever being explained to me. As a result, I feel distanced from them, aware of their fictionality. I don’t believe it’s Renee who has these thoughts or Paloma who is keeping this journal because on every page, I see Barbery holding the strings. Why is this so irksome, especially when she’s a lovely writer, both playful and smart?

This question leads, of course, to more questions, winding ones that haunt much of How Fiction Works (and many writing classroom discussions): When considering point-of-view, where does the author’s voice end and a narrator’s and/or character’s begin–and where (if anywhere) might they overlap? How seamless does the relationship between writer and narrator have to be, and how much should authors be aware of it as we write? How does point of view influence other aspect of craft, from characterization and dialogue to the choice of a single word, to the rhythm of a sentence?

One of my favorite terms used throughout How Fiction Works is “free indirect style.” Wood coins it to describe a third-person point of view that manages to subtly and, well, indirectly, attribute a thought or emotion to a character. Here’s a simple example p. 10: “Ted watched the orchestra through stupid tears.” We know to attribute the word stupid to Ted, and we get a wonderful, immediate sense of how he feels (ashamed). Another writer might say, “Ted watched the orchestra through tears, embarrassed but unable to stop crying,” but it is much less powerful; someone has stepped in to tell us overtly what Ted is feeling, and so we are aware there is another person in the room, helping us read the text. But when Ted watches the orchestra through stupid tears, we are delighted voyeurs, we are in the situation. Who does a word belong to, character or author? Wood notes that in this case, the word stupid belongs to both.

This is the most exciting (yet mystifying) thing about free indirect style: at its finest, it allows an author to use writerly language alongside words that belong utterly to that character’s vocabulary and experience. Here’s another example from Wood (p. 14), from Henry James’s What Maisie Knew; the third-person narration stays close to a little girl’s (Maisie’s) point of view as she recalls going with her governess, Mrs. Wix, to visit the cemetery where the woman’s dead daughter is buried: “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.” Wood stresses that here the word embarrassingly is all Maisie’s, while the word huddled is James’s; they work together to convey the wealthy child’s discomfort (one she can’t fully understand) at the meagerness of the earthly resting place of a servant’s child–and the sadness (again, beyond her rational comprehension) of another young girl’s death. “Huddled” may not be the word Maisie would use, but it helps complete an emotion she can’t quite convey with mere embarrassment.

Ideally, the tension between these styles (the author’s and the character’s) is invisible to the reader but yields the result of a way in to a character, one less direct yet more revealing than hearing his or her first-person account, or an author-narrator’s neatly formulated analysis. Wood also explores what he calls “unidentified free indirect style,” which indirectly attributes thoughts or feelings to a larger group of people or even a society, a village chorus effect.

A cohesive point of view is so crucial to a well-written piece of fiction — it’s both the entryway of and map to any work — but like “theme,” it’s very difficult to talk about. And so I welcome any attempt, like Wood’s, to tease out its layers–the languages of its author, its narrator, its character(s), and–as Wood points out–its larger world (regardless of how much said world resembles ours). What pleases me about the way How Fiction Works takes it on (focusing largely on free indirect style), is that Wood does not merely mention it in the first chapter and then abandon the topic; he brings it up again when discussing the evolution of the novel’s form, when discussing language, rhythm, characterization, character-appropriate metaphor, dialogue… In a chapter titled “A Brief History of Consciousness,” Wood notes (p. 147) that the advent (in novel form) of an “invisible audience” allows fiction “to become the great analyst of unconscious motive, since the character is released from having to voice his motives; the reader becomes the hermeneut, looking between the lines for the actual motive.”

Free indirect style empowers the reader, then. It both involves us in the story and trusts us to draw some of our own connections, as we do in life. Of course we feel more that such characters are more “real” when we are allowed to puzzle over them somewhat as we would our real-life friends, loved ones, and adversaries. And there’s the added bonus, in fiction, that we are privy to these people’s “stupid” thoughts.

Nearly invisible yet artful point of view (in first, second, third, omniscient, what-have-you) draws us in, makes fiction feel (not just seem) real.

When Hannah Tinti came to talk to my writing students, she said that she almost always writes in the third person, as she did in The Good Thief, and she discussed the specific challenges of choosing language and images in that novel, which stays close to a 12-year-old boy’s point of view (third-person limited). The language in The Good Thief is gorgeous, yet Tinti noted that she was careful not to let the book’s images and descriptions stray too far from this young boy’s (Ren’s) own experience. When Ren encounters new places or people, we can see how deeply his perceptions have been influenced by growing up at Saint Anthony’s orphanage. Each new encounter calls to mind a certain prayer, the sound of birds throwing themselves against the windows of Saint Anthony’s kitchen, a wishing stone flung into a well, a certain farmer who used to kiss his horse on the nose. And because it is in the third person, the novel can occasionally use a well-placed word Ren might not know–citrus, opium, smattering–when other characters are around, without incident.

As writers, how much do you consider point-of-view as you work (particularly as you revise), and how much bearing, deliberate or instinctive, does it have on your use of language? Do you ever consider it as readers? When and how does overstated point-of-view or authorial language get in the way?


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