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How Fiction Works Discussion Review: An Introduction


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.


Join the Discussion

  • Celeste

    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.

  • Jeremiah Chamberlin

    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”?

  • astameshkin

    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…

  • Jeremiah Chamberlin

    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?

  • Jeremiah Chamberlin

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

  • Greg Schutz

    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.

  • Greg Schutz

    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?

  • Jeremiah Chamberlin

    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.

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