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How Fiction Works

3.97  ·  Rating Details  ·  3,854 Ratings  ·  624 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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s.penkevich
Mar 27, 2015 s.penkevich rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Everyone
Recommended to s.penkevich by: Mike Puma
Critics often get a bad reputation, and likely deservingly so. I often reflect on a quote by Macedonio Fernández that a critic knows nothing of what perfect literature is, but only what it is not and, especially while writing on Goodreads, am constantly haunted by Susan Sontag's Against Interpretation. I tend to think of critics as being that friend in high school that hangs out at your band practice. He is the friend that knows more about your songs than you do, and has memorized your lyrics be ...more
Paul Bryant
Apr 18, 2015 Paul Bryant rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: litcrit

For 75 pages this was all clang clang clang goes the trolley ding ding ding goes the bell but then it turned a sharp corner and I think I done got throwed off the bus. Ow! As it rattled off without me I was left to think carefully about what I’m doing when I read a novel (aside from avoiding the interminable election debates on tv, OMG another 3 weeks to go), and what I think a novel is doing or supposed to be doing. It’s good to be made to think about these things. But why did I get throwed off
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Mike Puma
Aug 27, 2010 Mike Puma rated it it was amazing
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
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Terence
Nov 13, 2008 Terence rated it really liked it
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
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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
Helle
James Wood is brilliant! He simply is, and reading this book felt more like a conversation with a man who sees all in literature and loves literature, than a book or a lecture. It was a pleasure to read, and I will certainly re-visit it at some point – after having re-read or read, as the case may be, more of the novels he takes his many illustrative, interesting and apt examples from.

Wood is a connoisseur of literature, in the extreme, but he never becomes condescending or didactic. He illumin
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Gabriel
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
Jonathan
Sep 06, 2012 Jonathan rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition

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
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Ben Winch
Sep 10, 2012 Ben Winch rated it liked it
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,
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Teresa
Nov 01, 2015 Teresa rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
a mecânica da ficção é um trabalho muito interessante sobre as características do romance: narrativa, personagens, diálogos, estilo,...
Apesar de técnico, não é uma leitura cansativa porque Wood exemplifica tudo com pequenos excertos de obras de escritores conceituados (uns que já conhecia, outros que fiquei doida para conhecer).
No capítulo das personagens há um texto sobre "O grande romance de José Saramago, O Ano da Morte de Ricardo Reis", em que se refere a genialidade de Saramago ao criar uma
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brian
Jun 05, 2016 brian rated it liked it
Recommended to brian by: madame lepucki
there’s nothing in here that'll surprise the seasoned reader, but it's a damn smart synthesis of it all. what really makes it a worthwhile read is wood’s obvious love for books, the enthusiasm really flies off the page. I’ll take that over anything overly clever, passionless, or jargon-rific …
what i'm really wanting is a big fat book all reference like & shit, one that can be read from cover to cover, one that tells everything ya need to know about the novel. if that book doesn’t already ex
...more
Justin Evans
Apr 04, 2013 Justin Evans rated it liked it
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
Ben Loory
Feb 03, 2014 Ben Loory rated it it was ok
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
Cheryl
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.
David
Nov 27, 2008 David rated it liked it
Shelves: read-in-2008
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
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Henrik
Dec 26, 2008 Henrik rated it it was amazing
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.
Hans Castorp
Fresco y vívido ensayo sobre la novela. Para disfrutar y aprender al mismo tiempo.
Célia M. Martins

A grande conclusão que eu tirei desta leitura foi, utilizando as próprias palavras do autor, que «vamos crescendo como leitores, e leitores de vinte anos são praticamente virgens. Ainda não leram literatura suficiente para serem ensinados por ela a lê-la melhor. »

Apesar de se tratar de um estudo, uma espécie de ensaio mais técnico, este livro não é de todo aborrecido, monótono ou fatigante. O autor teve a preocupação em escrevê-lo de uma forma simples, fluída, e com uma linguagem e vocabulár
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Tyler
Oct 15, 2009 Tyler rated it really liked it
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
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Vanessa
An excellent book written from a man who is truly a lover of literature. This was an accessible introduction to literary criticism, and Woods challenged many of the common theorists/critics, widening (as a result) the possibilities for interpretation of any text. I feel like I learned a fair bit from reading this book, and I am looking forward to reading future books with a (hopefully) fresh pair of eyes.
Nick
Oct 10, 2014 Nick rated it it was ok
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 - goals of the novelist are 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 ...more
Lee
Sep 14, 2008 Lee rated it liked it
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
Serenus
Jul 05, 2012 Serenus rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Beth
4.5 stars

This is my favourite book of literary criticism; I prefer poetry to prose in my "scholarly career" (dear God), but this is perhaps the best work I've ever read, and it's a prose work. Not only is it very useful, it's highly original, and genuinely revelatory. I love it.
Richard
Sep 17, 2015 Richard rated it it was amazing
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: www.economist.com/books/displaystory....
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
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Kirsty
Aug 23, 2009 Kirsty rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
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Josh
Nov 23, 2008 Josh rated it really liked it
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
Jesse
Mar 15, 2010 Jesse rated it liked it
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
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Edan
Aug 16, 2008 Edan rated it really liked it
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
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Dusty Myers
Jan 19, 2009 Dusty Myers rated it really liked it
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
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  • 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel
  • Aspects of the Novel
  • On Becoming a Novelist
  • How Novels Work
  • The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot
  • Making Shapely Fiction
  • The Rhetoric of Fiction
  • How to Read and Why
  • The Paris Review Interviews, IV
  • The Writing of Fiction
  • Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft
  • Lectures on Literature
  • The Art of Fiction: Illustrated from Classic and Modern Texts
  • The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories
  • A Temple of Texts
  • Classics for Pleasure
  • Why Read the Classics?
  • Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them
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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
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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.” 33 likes
“When I talk about free indirect style I am really talking about point of view, and when I talk about point of view I am really talking about the perception of detail, and when I talk about detail I'm really talking about character, and when I talk about character I am really talking about the real, which is at the bottom of my inquiries.” 11 likes
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