Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Review: How Fiction Works, by James Wood

New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2008, pp. 288.

First things first--the book's title will strike many as a misnomer. In the strictest sense, How Fiction Works is not a comprehensive, nuts-and-bolts manual to reading or writing fiction, but rather an exposition of a number of ideas about some aspects of literary technique--in particular various aspects of narration and characterization.

Some may see these as all one really needs to know about "how fiction works"--particularly if they accept as a given the conventional ideas about what "serious" writers and readers should concern themselves with. Wood most certainly does, in his analysis stressing form and character over, for example, plot, action or idea. (Indeed, there are no chapters on those things.) Additionally, where the issues he discusses are concerned, he tends toward the usual, "respectable" positions, both on what makes writing good, and who exemplifies this--the writers he cites the most canonical of the canonical.

A book that effectively spells out basics that, frankly, even the experts themselves tend to abide by unthinkingly can only be written by an expert among experts, so much at home with these matters that he can explain them in concise and straightforward fashion, and Wood proves himself up to the job. How Fiction Works explains these matters lucidly, and illustrates its explanations with compelling examples, making it perfectly clear just what the techniques Wood describes really do for fiction--and why those writers who most fully and expertly utilize them are so revered. (Anyone unsure as to Gustave Flaubert's place in Western literature, for example, need look no further.)

Yet, an expert's being so steeped in his subject can also be a liability--and this, too, is the case here. While excelling at his explanation of the received wisdom of the field, Wood gives little thought to its limitations--to the weaknesses of the modes the critics typically exalt, let alone the possibility of valid alternatives. (Only in a defense of the value of "flat" characters does he challenge the prevailing opinion.) Still less is he inclined to consider the presumptions underlying these ideas (for example, the view that omniscient narration is "obsolete"). It might be noted, too, that not only does he stress the most canonical of the canonical in his example, but that his literary imagination at times seems painfully rarefied, John le Carré's Smiley's People as "lowbrow" as Wood dares to go (!), with even the reference to that work unfavorable, and even patronizing. ("Nice writing for sure . . . by the standards of contemporary thrillers . . . magnificent," but ultimately a "coffin of dead conventions" is all that this work of "commercial realism" offers--which will come as a shock to all those who have struggled with these novels.)

The result (as a survey of the Customer Reviews on a site like Amazon demonstrates) is that many a reader will regard Wood's concerns as limited, minor, obscure, or simply "snobbish," and for any and all of these reasons simply not relevant to how fiction actually works for them. Even those who find the book's narrower range of concerns to be of interest to them may wish it contained a more critical attitude toward its material--a thing for which they would have to go elsewhere. Still, even as one who has been appreciative of the case made for other standards (such as H.G. Wells so skillfully offered), in this book Wood excels at the task that (the title notwithstanding) he actually set himself, and in the process renders the student of literature a considerable service, one which made me wish I had encountered the work much earlier than I did.

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