How Fiction Works

James Wood




Trade Paperback

288 Pages



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A New York Times Book Review Notable Book

A Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year

A Washington Post Best Book of the Year
An Economist Best Book of the Year
A San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of the Year
A Kansas City Star Best Book of the Year
A Library Journal Best Book of the Year

What makes a story a story? What is style? What's the connection between realism and real life? These are some of the questions James Wood answers in How Fiction Works, the first book-length essay by the preeminent critic of his generation. Ranging widely-from Homer to David Foster Wallace, from What Maisie Knew to Make Way for Ducklings-Wood takes the reader through the basic elements of the art, step by step.

The result is nothing less than a philosophy of the novel in the traditions of E. M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel and Strunk and White's The Elements of Style by summing up two decades of insight with wit and concision.


Praise for How Fiction Works

"[Wood] opens his introduction by referring to John Ruskin's The Elements of Drawing, published in 1857, 'a patient primer,' Wood writes, 'intended by casting a critic's eye over the business of creation, to help the practicing painter, the curious viewer, the ordinary art lover.' So How Fiction Works is, or is intended to be, a specialist's guide for the nonspecialist, and with this aim in view it remains resolutely nontechnical and amply accommodating. Wood displays his usual genius for apt quotation, and as always his enthusiasm for those writers about whom he is enthusiastic is both convincing and endearing. If Roland Barthes had not already used the title, this book might well have been called A Lover's Discourse . . . He mentions also E. M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel and Milan Kundera's three books on the art of fiction, but only in order delicately to dismiss them-of Kundera he remarks, with what is surely a tolerantly patrician smile, that 'occasionally we want his hands to be a bit inkier with text.' Barthes and Shklovsky on the other hand, 'thought like writers: they attended to style, to words, to form, to metaphor and imagery,' a trait which Wood shares in abundance. Yet in a profound way he disagrees with and even disapproves of them and, by implication, therefore, disagrees with all other critics who, like them, 'thought like writers alienated from creative instinct, and were drawn, like larcenous bankers, to raid again and again the very source that sustained them-literary style.' This tendency to stylistic pilfering, of which, as has been implied above, Wood himself is not entirely free, led his two admired predecessors to conclusions about the novel that are 'wrongheaded' and against which Wood's book is, he tells us, a sustained argument. After this bit of spirited internecine sparring Wood adopts a brisk and practical tone, listing some of the 'essential questions' about fiction that he will address: on the nature of realism, on the definition of metaphor, on the reality or otherwise of fictional character, on the importance of detail, on point of view, on imaginative sympathy; he sets out his hope that 'this book might be one which asks theoretical questions but answers them practically-or to say it differently, asks a critic's questions and offers a writer's answers.' All this is admirable, and admirably stated . . . As we see, then, Wood's aim is an admirably old-fashioned humanistic affirmation not only of the aesthetic but of the educational value inherent in art, and specifically in the art of fiction . . . Like the figures in our dreams, the characters we encounter in fiction are really us, and the story we are told is the story of ourselves. And therein resets the delightful paradox that the novelist's transcendent lies are eminently more truthful than all the facts in the world, that they are, in Wood's formulation, 'true lies.' This is what Wood means when, dealing with fiction, he speaks of the real. It is an unfashionable view, and not the only possible and surely not the only valid one, but in the hands of this fiercely committed critic, and consummate stylist, it compels us to look that way with him."-John Banville, The New York Review of Books

"Wood's models for the 'best' in fiction will not surprise either his admirers or his detractors. He has his contemporary favorites, but the models are the masters: Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, James and above all, never far from view, Flaubert. He tells us in his preface that the book 'asks theoretical questions but answers them practically,' and by practical, he means analysis of techniques as illustrated by a series of generally superb line-by-line readings. This is a technical book, a primer of sorts, of interest to the practicing writer but probably most useful and illuminating for the serious reader who enjoys the fictive ride and wants to take a look under the hood."-Christopher Tilghman, The Washington Post

"His essential point is this: Novels and short stories succeed or fail according to their capacity (a capacity that has progressed over the centuries rather like the march of science) to represent, affectingly and credibly, the actual workings of the human mind as it interacts with the real world. The mind and the world, as Wood defines them, are dependable, fixed phenomena, for the most part, possessed of natural, intrinsic qualities that fiction writers in their ink-stained lab coats measure, prod, explore and seek to illustrate using a rather limited range of instruments that can be endlessly adjusted . . . Wood's precise, dialectical approach is well adapted to tracing the paradoxes behind standard literary conventions . . . he makes many nuanced observations about the fetishes and habits that mark individual writers' styles."-The New York Times Book Review

"Wood is among the few contemporary writers of great consequence . . . Reading Wood, no matter the book under review, provides enormous pleasure."-Gideon Lewis-Kraus, Los Angeles Times

"How Fiction Works should delight and enlighten practicing novelists, would-be novelists, and all passionate readers of fiction . . . Enchanting."-The Economist

"In his poem 'The Novelist,' W.H. Auden contrasts novelists with poets in terms of their different aptitudes. Poets can 'dash forward like hussars,' but novelists must 'learn / How to be plain and awkward.' A novelist, 'to achieve his lightest wish,' must 'Become the whole of boredom, subject to / Vulgar complaints like love.' Among the just, the novelist must be just, among the filthy, 'filthy too.' This poor slave, Auden implies, must take account of the rigmarole of ordinary life, the sundry of things merely being as they are. The poet, minding his own business, sits quietly till an inspiration strikes. By 'the novelist,' Auden means the realistic novelist, perhaps someone like his friend Christopher Isherwood. In his highly suggestive and far-reaching book How Fiction Works, the critic James Wood quotes Auden's poem, and evidently agrees with its contrast between novelist and poet . . . How Fiction Works is best-indeed brilliant-when it brings forward telling details: a word, a phrase, a sentence, an episode, in Dickens, Flaubert, Henry James, Jane Austen, Dostoyevsky, Proust, V.S. Naipaul, Muriel Spark, and many more."-Denis Donoghue, The New York Sun

"While going back and forth with Maxwell Perkins on some final edits of The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald sent a smattering of awful choices for new titles to his legendary editor at Scribner. The High-bouncing Lover, he wanted to it called for a time; or Gold-hatted Gatsby, or Trimalchio in West Egg, or just Trimalchio; or Among Ash Heaps and Millionaires. Perkins wisely advised against such poor choices when an option as good as The Great Gatsby was at hand. Finally, in March of 1925, Fitzgerald wired from France-he's come to a decision. He sent a telegram which read: 'CRAZY ABOUT TITLE UNDER RED WHITE AND BLUE STOP WHAT WOULD DELAY BE.' Thankfully, Perkins wrote back to say it was too late for such a change. Perkins has saved his greatest author from himself. This story feels apposite in thinking about all the splenetic ink that has been spilled over critic James Wood's How Fiction Works . . . While it's title might suggest otherwise, How Fiction Works is not really a primer on fiction; it isn't in any qualitative sense a reaction to Aspects of the Novel (though Wood's frequent references to the book compiled of Forster's 1927 lectures at Trinity College-he says that Forster's work now 'seems imprecise'-does unfortunately beg such comparisons), and it doesn't properly belong alongside John Gardner's maddening little polemic The Art of Fiction, or Hallie and Whit Burnett's Fiction Writer's Handbook, or any of the countless lesser fiction primers out there. It belongs to a different category altogether, one that's not a primer, not a personal treatise like Annie Dillard's The Writing Life or Anne Lamott's Bird By Bird either-but one more like Nabokov's Lectures on Literature, or even Joseph Conrad and Henry James's prefaces. These are meditations on writing from a writer whose mastery and depth as readers and practitioners call for us to sit at their feet. Wood certainly has earned himself such a voice, and he employs that voice to argue alongside the most distinguished writing on writing . . . Like Fitzgerald's perseveration on the title of the least imperfect American novel, maybe what made Forster's book so successful was its willingness not to try and be definitive while defining and defining and defining. He set out to do just what he did: illuminate some aspects of the novel. Wood has done so, as well, and he's done so with the great erudition and alarming breadth of reading we've come to associate with him."-Daniel Torday, The Kenyon Review

"It is not enough to have one Wood. What is needed is a thicket-a forest-of Woods . . . [He proves] that superior criticism not only unifies and interprets a literary culture but has the power to imagine it into being."-Cynthia Ozick, Harper's Magazine

"It is fortunate indeed that critic and New Yorker writer James Wood, when he is not on new book patrol (and armed to the teeth as precious few others are) has no difficulty stopping periodically to explicate the principals of what he's writing about. In this book, spurred on by the supposed impressions of E. M. Forster's 'canonical' 1927 Aspects of the Novel, he asks 'essential questions about the art of fiction. Is realism real? How do we define a successful metaphor? What is a character? When do we recognize a brilliant use of detail in fiction? What is point of view and how does it work?' And if all of that seems like a bleary, academic chalk talk guaranteed to anesthetize in mere minutes, Wood is so witty, clever and fiendishly well-read that his book is a bit more like accompanying a championship Formula One driver around the track at 180 mph while he explains the intricacies of auto racing. You'll have little difficulty maintaining avid attention and attaining no small enlightenment."-Buffalo News (editor's choice)

"Start with Cather, Proust, Hardy, Verga, Chekhov, Pavese, Henry Green. Add Nietzsche, Faulkner, and Flaubert, with a dusting of Thomas Bernhard and Marilynne Robinson. You now have a dozen from among the more than three score authors referred to in James Wood's wonderful . . . book-length essay How Fiction Works . . . If you push on, encouraged by the bite-sized portions in which Wood, an Englishman, presents his ideas, the odds are you will be rewarded, and not only by learning something about why in your fiction-reading life you have allowed dinner to cool while you finish just one more paragraph. Wood, for all his braininess-or because of it-is a treat. He succeeds in his attempt to 'reduce what Joyce calls "the true scholastic stink" to bearable levels' . . . James Wood, a staff writer at The New Yorker, has given us a jewel in How Fiction Works."-The Bloomsbury Review

"Over the past two decades, James Wood has established himself as one of the strangest, most vivid critical characters on the scene. He's been, by now, pretty much universally acknowledged . . . as the best book critic currently classing up the back end of America's magazines. (After writing for The New Republic for twelve years, he moved last summer to The New Yorker.) His strengths leave very little room to dispute this supremacy . . . He reads widely, deeply, fully, and closely; he extracts gallons of meaning from tiny dewdrops of text; his sentences (especially his metaphors) regularly outperform the book he's reviewing; and he transmits his enthusiasms so stirringly it's practically a form of intellectual erotica . . . How Fiction Works is largely an outgrowth of Wood's experience teaching at Harvard, where he's been since 2003 and is now Professor of the Practice of Literary Criticism. It's obvious why his classes are apparently so popular. The book is studded with great teacherly moments. He's particularly good at comparing texts from very different eras and genres."-Sam Anderson, New York magazine

"In his brief introduction to this valuable and entertaining primer, James Wood proposes to explore the following central questions about the art of fiction: 'Is realism real? How do we define a successful metaphor? What is a character? When do we recognize a brilliant use of detail in fiction? What is point of view and how does it work? What is imaginative sympathy? Why does fiction move us?' If the book has a larger argument, he continues, 'it is that fiction is both artifice and verisimilitude, and that there is nothing difficult in holding together the two positions.' Probably no one would dissent from the claim that fiction is artifice; but its verisimilitude is more problematic, and Wood has always been preoccupied with that problem. His first book of essays, The Broken Estate, has as its opening sentence, 'The real is the atlas of fiction, over which all novelists search,' and to further extend that search is always Wood's aim. As a practicing novelist himself-The Book Against God is a canny and engaging performance-he knows that memorable performance in criticism, as in fiction, is dependent on an imaginative use of language, on a style. 'Artifice' is required not only in the novelist; criticism should also be as creative as the critic can make it. One of the most attractive things about Wood's new book is its physical format and uncluttered mode of presentation, beginning with the no-nonsense three-word title, with 'works' promising the real lowdown. Its 248 pages of text are divided into 123 numbered sections, some of them very brief, all of them in large bold type; the relatively few footnotes are placed at the bottom of the page for handy reference. Wood tells us he has tried to reduce what James Joyce called 'the true scholastic stink' to bearable levels, and he claims to have used, as his examples, only books that can be found in his study. Such an address to the reader is a way of separating his book from more 'professional studies' and also a bid, made with artifice, at attracting an audience not exclusively academic. His ideal reader is perhaps the intelligent nonspecialist who likes to read novels. Although one of his favorite modern critics of fiction is the formidable formalist Roland Barthes, Wood opposes Barthes's deconstruction of realist fiction-what he calls Barthes's 'sensitive, murderous hostility to realism.' The coupling of 'murderous' with 'sensitive' is a nice example of Wood's creative style. The most obvious precursor of this book is E .M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel, which Wood calls 'imprecise.' In fact, Forster's essays are rather heavy with charm ('Yes, oh, dear, yes, the novel tells a story') and not terribly useful in describing how narrative works. Wood doesn't mention that Forster is also oddly deficient in never mentioning Flaubert as a crucial figure in narrative theory and practice, but the most vivid pages in his own book (ones I will focus on here) are those that make up his opening section ('Narrating') and two following ones on Flaubert and modern narrative. He begins by considering the much-used term 'omniscient narrative' and observes that it's 'rarely as omniscient as it seems': 'To begin with, authorial style generally has a way of making third-person omniscience seem partial and inflected.' For 'as soon as someone tells a story about a character, narrative seems to want to bend itself around that character, wants to merge with that character, to take on his or her way of thinking and speaking.' This 'bending,' he notes, is what is known as 'free indirect style,' which can also be called dramatic irony, inviting is to 'see through a character's eyes while being encouraged to see more than the character can see.' But, Wood insists, it is a narrative mistake to employ language that sees so much more than the character could plausibly see. His example of such disproportion are some sentences from John Updike's Terrorist, where Updike's protagonist, an eighteen-year-old Muslim boy, is given thoughts that sound too much like Updike's. Wood calls this 'planting big authorial flags,' as in the youth's reflection, 'Who would forever stoke Hell's boilers?' Such a sentence spoils the illusion of an eighteen-year-old thinking. Yet this 'sharing' of the language by narrator and character is something Wood admires when it occurs in Joyce or Saul Bellow. For example, he points out, we don't really believe that Leopold Bloom in Ulysses notices 'the flabby gush of porter' as it poured into a drain, or appreciates 'the buzzing prongs' of a fork in a restaurant. These perceptions are clearly Joyce's, so the reader in effect makes a 'treaty' with the writer by recognizing that Bloom will sometimes sound like Bloom, sometimes like Joyce. A similar treaty is made when we accord Tommy Wilhelm, the lumpish hero of Bellow's Seize the Day, his various exquisite perceptions. It's not clear to me why the same treaty of shared language can't be made with Updike and his protagonist; certainly the power of his Rabbit novels is dependent upon such sharing between novelist and protagonist. But Wood has never liked Updike much. One of the best things about How Fiction Works is that it provokes a reader into activity, occasionally of disagreement, much more often of agreement, usually accompanied by a pleased surprise at the felicity of expressive formulation. Wood is enlivening on how 'detail' in fiction is to be relished but can also cloy by its too-muchness: Henry James, he says, '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.' He remarks that young students are not good at noting metaphors and images that strike him as wonderful: 'They have not yet read enough literature to be taught by it how to read it.' His perceptions about individual writers are original and exact, as when he calls Muriel Spark's novels 'fiercely composed and devoutly starved.' These are a few of many examples of fresh and vivid formulations that make How Fiction Works a contribution to permanent criticism. It would be a splendid book to assign to any class of undergraduates in which fiction is a central concern. But experienced readers will also find themselves challenged and energized by it."-William H. Pritchard, Commonweal

"In 1858, John Ruskin wrote his Aspects of Drawing, a 244-page primer on modern form. Rare among Victorian texts, Aspects eschewed grandiose analysis. Instead it stripped art to a series of straight lines, from object (reality) to art (reality translated and then illuminated)-from 'technique to the world' . . . Wood, a staff writer at The New Yorker and former chief literary critic at the Guardian and The New Republic, is often called America's preeminent literary critic. In How Fiction Works, Wood attempts to do for literature what Ruskin did for drawing: distill the messy alchemy of art into a single, coherent system . . . Wood uses this wonderful romp through some telling moments in Western literature to talk about some of the basic building blocks of the novel: narration, detail, character, metaphor, and style. If this sounds as if this could all get a bit esoteric, well, best to brace yourself. Wood, who is also a lecturer at Harvard, has in many ways written an academic text, one that traffics in established literary theory and history . . . What really fascinates Wood-and what makes the book hum-is the messy business of characterization: the 'thousands of different kinds of people, some round, some flat, some deep, some caricatures, some realistically evoked, some brushed in with the lightest of strokes' . . . In the final pages of How Fiction Works, after the rhetorical fireworks have subsided, Wood writes that, '[I]n our own reading lives, every day, we come across that blue river of truth, curling somewhere; we encounter scenes and moments and perfectly placed words in fiction and poetry . . . which strike us with their truth, which move and sustain us, which shake habit's house to its foundations.' The achievement of How Fiction Works is to allow Wood's 'blue river' to spill outward from the text, until the writer's business of creation' has become our own."-Matt Shaer, The Christian Science Monitor

"Throughout his writing, Wood takes on the question of 'Does this work?' with gusto. If reviews, as Byron would have it, paraphrasing Shakespeare, are the 'paper bullets of the brain,' Wood always packs heat and can take deadly aim. In How Fiction Works, he confronts his personal version of the canon, telling us 'I have used only the books . . . at hand in my study.' At the same time, he confronts the postmodern assault on fiction's ability to represent reality. 'If this book has a larger argument,' he tells us, 'it is that fiction is both artifice and verisimilitude, and that there is nothing difficult in holding together these two possibilities' . . . Wood pairs such 'larger arguments' with refreshingly concrete discussions. Though he will grapple with a novel's thematic material, Wood seems to prefer taking apart a book's artistic machinery and, so to speak, cleaning the pieces before he puts them back together again: Here is how an author uses indirect address well and badly; here are some conflicts such narration might present to the writer; here is how they may be resolved; here is the place where an author has pushed a character to act well out of character. Wood performs this procedure with a great deal of skill and insight . . . In such explanatory moments, Wood moves adeptly from the vague to the familiar; he understands that sometimes one must describe an elusive idea elusively in order to communicate what one means . . . Wood is simply a supremely writerly reader, at once exceptionally intelligent and pleasingly accessible. He can make a point seem recognizable and at the same time refreshingly illuminating, such as when he notes that caricature, while generally uninteresting, 'sometimes might just be a novelist's way of sticking to the point,' or argues that 'in Flaubert and his successors we have the sense that the ideal of writing is a procession of details, a necklace of noticings, and that this is sometimes an obstruction to seeing, not an aid.'"-Rebecca Markovits, The Austin American-Statesman

"James Wood is in relax mode. That doesn't mean he's lost his edge, or that he can't get excited-enthusiasm is still his best party trick: He gushes like Old Faithful. But these days he's got nothing left to prove, no one to elbow out of the way. He's the undisputed champ. If the poet laureate had a critic laureate to keep her company, James Wood would be he-why else would Harvard have appointed him professor of the practice of literary criticism? Why else would The New Yorker have poached him last year from The New Republic? . . . I'm pleased to report that he remains politely but firmly highbrow, alive to literature and indifferent to the rest. He takes a gentle swipe, for instance, at the 'commercial realism' of John le Carré, summoning up a passage, examining it in detail, then dismissing it as a 'clever coffin of dead conventions.' Mr. Wood carves out a space for himself in which to perform a series of pas de deux with a wide array of writers, from Cervantes to Sebald. Each brief dance is perfectly calibrated to show off both the skill of the writer and the subtlety of the critic's discernment-and, of course, to illustrate a point about fiction. The performance looks effortless-not because he isn't working hard, but because he's enjoying himself. He's engaged in a serious kind of ecstatic play."-Adam Begley, The New York Observer

"In Brian Morton's Starting Out in the Evening, an elderly, out-of-print novelist flashes back to a moment in the 1960s when the legendary critic Edmund Wilson was rumored to have had his eye on him. 'This was unbelievable . . . Schiller had received some glowing reviews, but a review by someone like Wilson could put him on the literary map for good.' The anointment never happened, but Wilson's laying on of hands was able to confer immunity from oblivion. No one today enjoys such stature and influence, but James Wood, a British-born Harvard professor and a staff writer for The New Yorker, has established himself as a redoubtable reader whose observations and pronouncements are greeted with anticipation and anxiety. His latest book provides a handy breakdown of narrative elements informed by painstaking immersion in classic and contemporary novels . . . Wood's book is an articulate reminder of the framework that is essential to constructing a lasting work of the imagination."-Ariel Gonzalez, The Miami Herald

"James Wood's new book, How Fiction Works, is as knowing as you'd expect from one of the best critics alive-more knowing than that, in fact-but that may not always please writers, since Wood also knows how fiction doesn't work. I guess I'd always thought, for instance, that maybe it wasn't too lame to kick off a novel or story with a description of a photograph. Wood not only identifies this device, correctly, as a cliché marking the writer as a greenhorn, but also cooks up a parody just plausible enough to seduce you before stinging . . . Wood brings this degree of attention and rigor to his compressed discussions-but rich in specifics-of narration, character, dialogue, language (including rhythm, repetition, metaphor and levels of diction), the use of detail and the ever-recurring debate over literary realism . . . This is not a how-to-write book-though I think every fiction writer ought to read it, ideally before sitting down at the computer next time-but an analytic appreciation of fiction in action, in the tradition of Henry James's The Art of Fiction or E. M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel or, more recently, Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer. Wood draws his examples from writers as varied as Jane Austen and Philip Roth, Flaubert and David Foster Wallace; in a discussion of irony, he enlists both James's What Maisie Knew and Robert McCloskey's Make Way for Ducklings. He's a great appreciator. In a sex scene from Roth's Sabbath's Theater, a single, long sentence is 'an amazingly blasphemous mélange' of dictions, from high to 'very low.' In a negotiation scene between two poor men in V. S. Naipaul's A House for Mr. Biswas, 'the dance of pride is so delicately done.' But occasionally an artistic lapse serves his purpose better, as in his detailed autopsy of a passage from John Updike's 2006 novel Terrorist. Cause of death? Updike's 'awkward alienation from his character' . . . The intensity and the intelligence of Wood's caring make this a book to be grateful for, even when-maybe especially when-he makes you feel like a greenhorn."-David Gates, Newsweek

"For a little more than 20 bucks, aspiring novelists now have access to a cogent and eloquent study of how fiction works, as goes the simple and unapologetically authoritative title of critic James Wood's new book. In fact, aspiring novelists, working novelists and literary-minded readers alike will find much to draw on from How Fiction Works in developing their own relationship to books, whether by following Wood's formulations for creating meaning in narrative, characters and prose, or seeing them as a series of high-toned spurs to write and read in a vein other than the one he endorses . . . Wood's openness to the possibility that great books can offer mystical, higher-order insight invests How Fiction Works with a strongly ethical, near-religious dimension that recalls the critic-as-culture-priest postures of F. R. Leavis, T. S. Eliot and Matthew Arnold. Meanwhile, his chapter-by-chapter emphasis on the very workings of literature-style, perspective, detail and character, which naturally and necessarily cohere in achieving 'the real'-insures that regardless of one's own set of principles for why fiction ought to matter, one is still able to engage with Wood's perceptions of how . . . Wood's can be so formidably and enjoyably persuasive in making his case that it's hard not to want to read as he does . . . James Wood's taste in fiction just might be Taste itself . . . It's at once a case for and demonstration of what it means to bring a discriminating intelligence, well-read authority, humane feeling and open enthusiasm to one's encounter with great books, with God's showy signatures."-The National Post

"Few people are as deft at dissecting a novel as James Wood . . . Wood's uncannily well-tuned ear is hard to improve on."-Terry Eagleton, Prospect (UK)

"A perceptive and graceful essay which almost anybody who's interested in books could read . . . Well worth reading."-The Sunday Times (UK)

"How Fiction Works proselytizes on behalf of literature not merely by recommending it, but by actually embodying the virtues it sets out to praise . . . Like scheming courtiers, Wood's essays and reviews, while going about the business of scrupulously attending to other talents, have always quietly aspired themselves to the state of literary permanence. Indeed, his prose is so consistently burnished and habit-forming, always liable to blossom into metaphor at the most unseasonable moment, that many readers find themselves in the unusual predicament of looking forward to the new Roth or McCarthy novel-not for the book itself, but to see what Wood will have to say about it . . . By comparison, most contemporary critics are 50 miles back, in the hermetic opulence of some requisitioned château . . . Lifelike-in a beautifully artificial way. At once passionate and objective, enraptured and discriminating, this is Wood in a sentence, a tenant in the house of fiction who knows its whole structure, as well as its moldings and fixtures and secret passageways, as comprehensively as the architect himself."-Giles Harvey, The Village Voice

"This admirable book is, among other things, a successful attempt to replace E.M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel as an accessible guide to the mechanics of fiction. Without losing sight of its promise to address the common reader rather than the specialist, How Fiction Works is much more sophisticated than Forster's book, which is now eighty years old, but still, in a rather peculiar way, what James Woods says it is, namely 'canonical.' Some observations-on the difference between flat and round characters-are still quoted even though more subtle discriminations have long been available, and Wood has thought keenly and profitably about such matters. He also benefits, as Forster did not, from wide reading in contemporary fiction . . . As to the famous dichotomies mentioned above-flat/round, story/plot-they have been scorned by critics, if not by students, for almost a century. Wood's book offers updated versions; flat characters will never be the same again. Wood's conversational style is a modern equivalent of Forster's, but for all its wit and ease of manner, this is a much more substantial study . . . There have been many books in recent years on the making of fiction, but I know of none (except perhaps S/Z, its admired anti-realist opponent) that can offer as much serious instruction as this masterly essay."-Frank Kermode, The New Republic

"New Yorker staff writer Wood channels E.M. Forster's classic Aspects of the Novel in a book-length analysis of the techniques that make fiction 'both artifice and verisimilitude.' Adopting an enthusiast's approach, the author examines classic and contemporary aesthetic choices, citing the works of several dozen favorite authors, including precursors of fiction (Homer, Shakespeare, Cervantes), consensus masters (Flaubert, Tolstoy, Austen, Henry James, Chekhov, Stendhal) and eminences still practicing (V.S. Naipaul, J.M. Coetzee, Jose Saramago, Ian McEwan). Wood occasionally gushes, as in his consideration of 'free indirect style . . . [which allows us to] see things through . . . the character's eyes and language but also through the author's.' But he quickly composes himself, rebuking John Updike and Saul Bellow for allowing authorial mind-sets to infiltrate a character's habits of thinking and speaking (in the former's Terrorist and the latter's Seize the Day). There follows a superb discussion of 'Real and Literary Detail,' emphasizing 'the moment when a single detail has suddenly enabled us to see a character's thinking.' The centrality of characterization in the modern novel is linked to the interest of certain masters (notably Dostoevsky) in making psychological complexity dramatically interesting. In a parallel argument, Wood examines how rhythm and momentum are established through the skillful manipulation of simple everyday language (as in the best of D.H. Lawrence). Wood's unalloyed delight in the achievements of the finest writers of fiction leads him to a closely reasoned and impassioned rejection of the ignorant canard claiming that realistic fiction is dead. Highly stimulating stuff-if it doesn't make you hug your bookcase gratefully, you're probably an incorrigible 'formalist-cum-structuralist.'"-Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"Serious readers of fiction will tackle this informing and enlightening new work with unrestrained relish. A staff writer at The New Yorker, Wood asks all the right questions: What is character, point of view, the value of metaphor and simile, and detail? Is it all artifice or realism, or could it be labeled imaginative truth? His engaging discussion covers narration in all its forms, the impersonal author, the tension that exists between an author's and a character's style, flat vs. round characters, irony, and more. Wood uses excerpts from works by notable authors, from Miguel Cervantes and Jane Austen to Saul Bellow and John Updike, to illustrate his statements with pinpoint precision. Whether he is commenting on a work's weakness or strength, he supports his opinion with reasoned scholarship. Great fiction has what Wood calls 'lifeness.' Ditto for this book, whose footnotes are as engrossing as the narrative."-Robert Kelly, Library Journal

"Wood takes aim at E.M. Forster's longtime standard-bearer Aspects of the Novel in this eminently readable and thought-provoking treatise on the ways, whys and hows of writing and reading fiction. Wood addresses many of the usual suspects-plot, character, voice, metaphor-with a palpable passion (he denounces a verb as pompous and praises a passage from Sabbath's Theater as an amazingly blasphemous little mélange), and his inviting voice guides readers gently into a brief discourse on thisness and chosenness, leading up to passages on how to push out, the contagion of moralizing niceness and, most importantly, a new way to discuss characters. Wood dismisses Forster's notions of flat or round characters and suggests that characters be evaluated in terms of transparencies and opacities determined not by the reader's expectations of how a character may act (as in Forster's formula), but by a character's motivations. Wood, now at the New Yorker and arguably the pre-eminent critic of contemporary English letters, accomplishes his mission of asking a critic's questions and offer[ing] a writer's answers with panache. This book is destined to be marked up, dog-eared and cherished."-Publishers Weekly (starred review)

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Chapter One

The house of fiction has many windows, but only two or three doors. I can tell a story in the third person or in the first person, and perhaps in the second person singular, or in the first person plural, though...

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  • James Wood

  • James Wood is a staff writer at The New Yorker and a visiting lecturer at Harvard. He is the author of two essay collections, The Broken Estate and The Irresponsible Self, and a novel, The Book Against God.

  • James Wood ©Miriam Berkley