How Fiction Works
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How Fiction Works

3.94 of 5 stars 3.94  ·  rating details  ·  2,747 ratings  ·  508 reviews
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 b...more
Paperback, 265 pages
Published July 22nd 2008 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (first published February 7th 2008)
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Jan 26, 2014 sckenda rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Serious Readers of Literary Fiction and Students of Writing
Rules are meant to be broken. According to James Wood, a writer for The New Yorker, good fiction continually breaks forms and conventions. “The true writer that is a free servant of life is the one who must always be acting as if life were a category beyond anything the novel has yet grasped; as if life itself were on the verge of becoming conventional.” Fiction is both “artifice and verisimilitude.” In other words, fiction works by both tricks and truth.

I have always been suspicious of two rul...more
Nov 13, 2008 Terence rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommended to Terence by: The A.V. Club
I kind of hate reading books of this sort as they leave me with a heightened awareness of style, character, rhythm, etc. that makes it difficult to read average or sub-par fiction. Of course, the benefit of reading books like this is that I do cultivate a more discriminatory taste so that I read only the best "trashy" novels.

I haven't read any of Wood's criticisms but if this brief tome is any indication of the author's style, erudition and insightfulness, I have been missing out.

As with other b...more
Mike Puma
Aug 27, 2010 Mike Puma rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: fiction readers
This is a book I've read, re-read, and re-re-read. I go back to it frequently, whenever I've finished one of the titles from its bibliography, or just to revisit Wood's various topics. Deceptively simple and quickly read. If allowed, HFW will inform any novel you read. It is not comprehensive in its scope; it omits topics like plot, structure, etc. and limits itself to Wood's own intersts (an issue some reviewers take exception to).

There was a time when I'd read a passage from a novel and wonde...more
MJ Nicholls
A verymost entertaining and informative book about books and how writers make them from words placed in different orders. Split into handy chapters but written as one lengthy essay with numerical subheadings, Wood teaches us things from Flaubert, James, Joyce, Foster Wallace and other masters and mistresses about how to identify bad writing from good, and how free indirect style is a thing of beauty when done right. Only trouble is his persistent disagreement with a William Gass quote that he mi...more

How Fiction Works is a fascinating theoretical book that should be read by anyone interesting in literature, linguistics and the foundations underlying creative writing itself. James Wood draws references from many different books and breaks everything down to varying levels of analysis to have a look at what makes fiction fiction.

Wood's most interesting aspect of his book is how he breaks everything down into different levels and aspects. What I mean by this is that he has chapters on each impo...more
Ben Winch
The best thing about this book is a quote from Cyril Connolly regarding what shouldn't be allowed in the novel:
Many situations should be forbidden, all getting and losing of jobs, proposals of marriage, reception of love letters by either sex... all allusions to illness or suicide (except insanity), all quotations, all mentions of genius, promise, writing, painting, sculpting, art, poetry, and the phrases 'I like your stuff,' 'What's his stuff like?' 'Damned good,' 'Let me make you some coffee,
Aug 21, 2008 brian rated it 3 of 5 stars
Recommended to brian by: madame lepucki
there’s nothing in here that will truly surprise the seasoned reader, but it serves as a smart synthesis of it all. and it’s short. damn short. but what really makes the book a worthwhile read is wood’s obvious love for books – the enthusiasm flies off the page. and I’ll take that over anything overly clever, passionless, or jargon-rific …

what i really want is a big, fat book - referencelike, but one that can be read from cover to cover - that basically tells you everything you need to know abo...more
Where's the option for 3.5 stars when you need it?

Points in this book's favor -

It's short, and very readable. In the second of two introductions, Wood promises to be "mindful of the common reader" and to try to "reduce .. the scholastic stink to bearable levels". He does a commendable job of keeping his promise.

Wood's enthusiasm for reading is evident throughout, and is infectious. The strongest aspect of the book are the many specific examples that Wood provides of what works and doesn't work...more
Ben Loory
should be called SOME REMARKS ON STYLE. seems supremely uninterested in "how fiction works," at least in the sense of "how a story works" or even "what a story is." in fact story is never discussed at all. character gets short shrift as well. actually there's really nothing discussed in here that might serve as an engine for literary creation. but maybe that's it; it's just not a book for writers. not really sure who it is a book for though. apparently for people who like saul bellow a lot. wish...more
Dec 26, 2008 Henrik rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: those interested in literary scholarship with only minor 'academic' notes
Shelves: scholarship
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Oct 15, 2009 Tyler rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Any Fiction Reader
Recommended to Tyler by: Various Reviews
Shelves: non-fiction
Once it came out in paperback I didn’t wait to buy this book. This writer does what the title suggests – he tells his readers how to direct attention when reading fiction.

Many topics are covered: narration, detail, character, language and dialog, to name a few. Dozens of books are cited for the effective employment of particular strategies, so a side benefit is an armful of new reading ideas.

Wood traces the origin of fiction. In ancient texts we find characters such as Kind David who simply spea...more
Spiegazione per Cynthia che queste cose non le sa.
Leggendo questo libro ho capito che un romanzo funziona così: c'è uno che si chiama autore che compera un quaderno e una biro e comincia a scrivere delle parole. Quando il quaderno è finito lo dà a un altro che si chiama editore che gli dice: Braaavo! e prende il quaderno e lo passa allo stampatore che gli dice: Graaazie! poi copia le parole poi lo stampa e poi lo rilega. Adesso il romanzo c'è e può funzionare:
a) se le pagine sono tante (tipo Inf...more
This is a literary paean to the joys of good fiction. It is a deceptively simple title. It is really a guided tour of various works, and Wood delights in explaining what is extraordinary about devices or passages used in these stories. Sometimes he also takes pains to describe what doesn't work, being famously disappointed with Updike's The Terrorist, for instance. The greatest pleasure was to admire Wood's own wonderful stylings and prose.
For all the hostile ships that Wood's writing has launched (in print and, more often, online), he's a pretty inclusive critic. Twice now (in this book and again in The Irresponsible Self), he's talked about realism schooling its truants - but then his idea of reality seems to be that it's the quality of shared experience that makes us nod when we read, for example, about a train's plume of smoke looking like a quill feather. Yes, it does look like that, we think - and when we do this we are doin...more
Justin Evans
I confess, I came into this expecting to dislike it. But the first chapters were perfectly readable if derivative, and had enough small moments of insight that I was really keen to keep reading. Reviews such as Walter Kirn's in the NYT pushed me even further towards wanting to like Wood, since citing Huck Finn, On the Road and Jesus' Son as three 'masterpieces'* that Wood can't account for is a bit like suggesting that a book about fashion can't account for fashion masterpieces such as happy pan...more
A great reading list (in chronological order) at the end. Otherwise: Eh+. Just fine reading. Nothing mind-blowingly new. No humor other than the suggestion that he's reminded of a description of a veiny cigar every day, that is, when he masturbates? The final pages about lifeness are solid and mildly inspiring. As far as a technical book for writers, I prefer the efficiency, clarity, and cleverness of "Making Shapely Fiction" -- but this book nicely retells the evolutionary history of the elemen...more
I wasn't really sure what to expect from this book. I haven't studied English Literature since I was at school and was looking for something that wasn't overly academic but would give me a better understanding of the novel.

I was impressed with this book as it did just that. Wood clearly knows what he's talking about and his enthusiasm for reading is clear throughout the book. There isn't overuse of jargon and so the book was perfect for me as a non-academic. There is good use of references to ot...more
Mr. Wood prepare for rebuttal:

This book started with plenty of promise and then slowly (but inexorably) faded into that jaded downfall of all critics: personal opinion. Wood begins the book (and titles it) with an eye toward explaining how fiction manages to pull off its alchemical (his word, and what a great one) magic, using a term – “free indirect style” – to discuss how the narrator of most fictional works blends authorial diction and syntax, with words and phrases culled straight from a ch...more
Between the years 1910 and 1915, R. A. Torrey and A. C. Dixon compiled a series of books of essays entitled "The Fundamentals." With this series, Torrey and Dixon set out to give the true Christian absolutely everything that s/he needed to know in order to have as complete a picture of the Creation as possible. Perhaps in the knowledge that they had set for themselves an impossible task, Torrey and Dixon contented themselves with holding up the Bible as the perfect truth and counseling their rea...more
Wood himself states, “If (this) 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.” Wood himself writes well, breaking his argument into brief but connected sections, almost paragraphs, and writing with ease and fluency, using incisive imagery. He has copious literary examples of the points he is trying to make (not unmixed with critical judgments), and they ease his explanations. Th...more
Dusty Myers
I write realist fiction.

Lots of times I'm able to hold onto this as a source of pride, in that I "believe in" realism and what it can accomplish—what it has accomplished for me as a lifelong reader. But lots of other times I understand it as a limitation. I do the best I can, and I can't write anything other that realism. Not with much confidence. When I step up to the plate, so to speak, it's a swing and miss. Given the chance, I'd have a young man wake up one morning and find he'd metamorphose...more
Sherwood Smith
A short book, fizzing with Wood's enthusiasm for reading and books. A tad too male-gaze-as-arbiter-of-judgment to take too seriously, but he offers some good discussion on narrative convention, style, voice, and what he calls free indirect style, which covers those liminal bits that seem to be character/narrator thoughts but may actually be auctorial fiat.

This is the kind of book that is good reading when one wants to look at narrative process from another slant altogether.
Sep 11, 2014 Richard rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Any reader looking to advance their skill as a reader. Or, I guess, someone wanting to be a writer.
Recommended to Richard by:
Some books get all the luck. When a reader is first exposed to a perspective never before seen, or an effort of creation never imagined, that book that triggered this will loom larger, regardless of its merits.

Wood's book is the first litcrit book I've ever read; or at least that I can recall (there are plenty of books I read twenty or thirty years ago that would surprise me now).

I got lucky, since this is a engagingly written and passionate work of a bibliophile, but what earned it that extra s...more
The house of fiction has many windows, but only two or three doors.

In How Fiction Works, the critic James Wood tries “to be mindful of the common reader” and reduce was Joyce calls, “true scholastic stink” to bearable levels. Like an art critic would break down the elements of artistic style, from drawing to painting, to penciling in the appropriate amount of shade, Wood reveals aspects about the art of fiction. Is realism real? How do we define a successful metaphor? What is a character, etc?...more
Grant Faulkner
I’m a sucker for each new, hyped book about how to write fiction. You’d think I was in my twenties, not my forties.

Several years ago it was Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer. Then James Wood’s How Fiction Works came along.

I recently read an interesting article about the death of fiction in the Virginia Quarterly Review (at least for literary journals), but the one thing that isn’t dying—and is thriving—is the publishing industry’s slew of how-to’s on the craft of writing fiction (perhaps th...more
Perhaps the worst transgression of James Wood's How Fiction works is its title. Make no mistake, this is not a book about how to write a novel. Wood never addresses plot, or pacing, or even theme. Instead he's clear that the most important - perhaps the only important - goal of the novelist is to give ever-richer and more compelling details, and to be outsmarting convention at every turn. It's a highfalutin vision of writing, and Wood is pointedly dismissive of genre fiction. He instead delves m...more
Aug 16, 2008 Edan rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommended to Edan by: Cory Garfin
I am re-reading this now, after reading it in a day and a half. More to come.


The fact that I am reading this twice in a row must mean something. Wood is clearly passionate about literature, and this love comes through in his articulate and pleasant prose. I enjoyed his close readings of texts, and although a lot of his thoughts on point of view or character didn't seem like new ideas, they were so well stated, I found myself nodding and smiling, nodding and smiling.

It was such great fun to kn...more
Phenomenal, pleasurable book; would love to use it for a class on fiction—either a lit class OR a writing class—because of its readability and eloquence. I was put off at first by Wood’s snooty NewYorker-iness, his heavy sampling of Euro male writers, his claim that “there’s no book quite like mine”; but once I got over myself and allowed my fierce (and perhaps snooty) inner judge a recess, I learned a pile. Such as:

What a big heart and big mind James Wood has—real compassion here for literature...more
Read the reviews on Amazon! This book is admired by many and hated by a few. The negative reviews are the most telling: too much white space, chapters are too short, and there's far too much replication and explication of work that should be read in the original (Barthes, Foucault etc.). The reasons some of the reviewers didn't like Wood's book are some of the reasons I did like it. I liked the small chapters (the material is so dense and well thought through it has to be presented in small chun...more
Amy Rae
We're studying this in class, and I am currently writing my response to each of the chapters.

I have to be brutally honest here: this book is absolute shit. This is merely Wood's many opinions on how to write a novel. He is constantly failing to properly articulate himself. Most of the time, I have no idea what I've just read until we come back to class and my teacher goes through with us. Unlike Wood, my teacher understands that proper examples and comparisons help drive someone's point across.

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James Douglas Graham Wood is an English literary critic, essayist and novelist. He is currently Professor of the Practice of Literary Criticism at Harvard University (a part-time position) and a staff writer at The New Yorker magazine.
Wood advocates an aesthetic approach to literature, rather than more ideologically-driven trends in academic literary criticism.
Wood is noted for coining the genre t...more
More about James Wood...
The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief (Modern Library Paperbacks) The Fun Stuff: And Other Essays The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel The Book Against God The Book of Common Prayer

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“Literature differs from life in that life is amorphously full of detail, and rarely directs us toward it, wheras literature teaches us to notice. Literature makes us better noticers of life; we get to practice on life itself; which in turn makes us better readers of detail in literature; which in turn makes us better readers of life.” 21 likes
“Life, then will, always contain an inevitable surplus, a margin of the gratuitous, a realm in which there is always more than we need: more things, more impressions, more memories, more habits, more words, more happiness, more unhappiness.” 5 likes
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