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How Fiction Works

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In the tradition of E. M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel and Milan Kundera's The Art of the Novel, How Fiction Works is a scintillating study of the magic of fiction--an analysis of its main elements and a celebration of its lasting power. Here one of the most prominent and stylish critics of our time looks into the machinery of storytelling to ask some fundamental questions: What do we mean when we say we "know" a fictional character? What constitutes a telling detail? When is a metaphor successful? Is Realism realistic? Why do some literary conventions become dated while others stay fresh?

James Wood ranges widely, from Homer to Make Way for Ducklings, from the Bible to John le Carré, and his book is both a study of the techniques of fiction-making and an alternative history of the novel. Playful and profound, How Fiction Works will be enlightening to writers, readers, and anyone else interested in what happens on the page.

265 pages, Paperback

First published February 7, 2008

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About the author

James Wood

153 books405 followers
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 term hysterical realism, which he uses to denote the contemporary conception of the "big, ambitious novel" that pursues vitality "at all costs." Hysterical realism describes novels that are characterized by chronic length, manic characters, frenzied action, and frequent digressions on topics secondary to the story.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,058 reviews
Profile Image for Glenn Russell.
1,377 reviews12k followers
May 15, 2023

“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.”
― James Wood, How Fiction Works

You might not agree with everything James Wood has to say about a particular author or work of literature, but you have to admit there isn’t another booklover more passionately dedicated to careful reading, finely honed criticism and upholding high standards. How Fiction Works is case in point: very much like an expert mechanic examining the assorted parts of the engine in an Italian or German sports car, James Wood rolls up his sleeves and scrutinizes various aspects of what goes into the writing of fiction, especially the novel.

His particular method is to undergird his analysis and reasoning with numerous examples – this is a fairly short book but there are over 100 individual literary novels quoted or referenced, from Don Quixote, Jane Eyre, Madame Bovary, What Maisie Knew, Sister Carrie and Ulysses to Invisible Man, Lolita, Seize the Day, Blood Meridian, Atonement and Gilead. And this is not exactly an easy book to read; I myself had to break an intellectual sweat, rereading passages again and again to grasp more completely Mr. Wood’s thinking. To share some of the many insights a reader will find in its pages, below are specific James Wood quotes coupled with my comments:

“In reality, we are stuck with third- and first-person narration. The common idea is that there is a contrast between reliable narration (third-person omniscient) and unreliable narrator (the unreliable first-person narrator, who knows less about himself than the reader eventually does). On one side Tolstoy, say; and on the other, Humbert Humbert or Italo Sveno’s narrator, Zeno Cosini, or Bertie Wooster.”

The author spends a good number of his opening pages explaining the dynamics of voice, that is, the manner in which a story is told. At one point he notes: “Actually, the first-person narration is generally more reliable than unreliable; and third-person “omniscient” narration is generally more partial than omniscient.” I’m reminded of a personal favorite, the way Colin Harrison opens his Bodies Electric using a first-person narrator who is both completely reliable and painfully honest: “My name is Jack Whitman and I should never have had the first thing to do with her. I shouldn’t have indulged myself – my loneliness, my attraction to her – not with what was happening at the Corporation at the time. But I’m as weak hearted for love and as greedy for power as the next guy, maybe more so. And I was crazy for the sex – of course that was part of it.” These opening four sentences, set off like a string of explosions, give us a clear indication of what fireworks we can expect as we turn the pages.

“It is useful to watch good writers make mistakes. Plenty of excellent ones stumble at free indirect style.”

Free indirect style being a blending of objective third-person narration with the thoughts and words of a character. James Wood shares the example of how John Updike in his novel Terrorist, in order to propel the story, puts impossible thoughts in the head of his eighteen-year old main character, impossible in the sense that an eighteen-year old could never have such thoughts and could never express such thoughts in the novelist’s sophisticated language. Major blunder! By the way, years ago when Updike’s novel S was first published, I recall reviewers claiming that the main character in the novel, a young woman by the name of Sarah Worth, wrote letters as if she had the literary talent of a John Updike. Again, major blunder!

“Novelists should thank Flaubert the way poets thank spring: it all begins again with him. There really is a time before Flaubert and a time after him. Flaubert decisively established what most readers and writers think of as modern realist narration, and his influence is almost too familiar to be visible.”

In order to fully dissect how fiction works and why fiction works, Mr. Wood delves into the history of the novel, particularly innovations made within the nineteenth century.

James Wood details why no novelist ever had a more profound influence on the novel than Gustave Flaubert.

“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 in life. And so on and on. You have only to teach literature to realize that most young readers are poor noticers.”

I can speak to the truth of Wood’s claim by my own first-hand experience: after reading Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's Cancer Ward in my early 20s, I was better prepared to deal with my own father's confinement to a hospital bed for an extended time.

“There is nothing harder than the creation of fictional character. I can tell it from the number of apprentice novels I read that begin with descriptions of photographs.”

Ha! First-rate fiction writers like Richard Russo and Elmore Leonard make the creation of their interesting, lifelike characters look so easy. It’s a kind of magic – it ain’t easy, as anyone who has ever tried their hand at fiction writing realizes very quickly.

“There is something deeply philosophical about Dostoevsky’s analysis of human behavior, and Nietzsche and Freud were attracted to his work (One chapter of Dostoevsky’s novella The Eternal Husband is entitled “Analysis.”). Proust, who said that all of Dostoevsky’s novels might have the one title, Crime and Punishment, studied him with perhaps more care than he would admit to.”

One great characteristic of a truly great novelist: they expand and deepen what it means to write a novel. Certainly the case with Dostoevsky.

“This new approach to character meant a new approach to form. When character is stable, form is stable and linear – the novelist begins at the beginning, telling us about his hero’s childhood and education, moving decisively forward into the hero’s marriage, and then toward the dramatic crux of the book (something is wrong with the marriage). But if character is changeable, then why begin at the beginning? Surely it would be more effective to begin in the middle, and then move backward, and then move forward, and then move backward again? This is just the kind of form Conrad would use in Lord Jim and The Secret Agent, and Ford in The Good Soldier.”

Along with voice, novelists must make clear decisions on how their novel will be structured in time. I vividly recall Charles Baxter’s First Light, a novel beginning with the main character, a middle-age Michigan car salesman by the name of Hugh Welsh, confronting a crisis involving his younger sister Dorsey, a university physicist. Each chapter moves further back in time, until we reach the last chapter when Hugh is a four-year-old boy at the hospital holding his newborn baby sister for the first time. Such authorial creativity made for unique reading.

"Ford Madox Ford, in his book Joseph Conrad: A Personal Remembrance, writes wonderfully about getting a character up and running - what he calls "getting the character in." -- Ample are the reasons given in Mr. Wood's book as to why Ford's words sparkle.

“We have to read musically, testing the precision and rhythm of a sentence, listening for the almost inaudible rustle of historical association clinging to the hems of modern words, attending to patterns, repetitions, echoes, deciding why one metaphor is successful and another is not, judging how the perfect placement of the right verb or adjective seals a sentence with mathematical finality.”

Let me share what has helped me develop my own musical ear for reading fiction: I make it a point to occasionally read aloud. Respecting the musicality of fiction, the ear has it all over the eye.

“All the great realists, from Austen to Alice Munro, are at the same time great formalists. But this will be unceasingly difficult: for the writer has to act as if the available novelistic methods are continually about to turn into mere convention and so has to try to outwit that inevitable aging. The true writer, that free servant of life, is one who must always be acting as if life were a category beyond anything the novel has yet grasped; as if life itself were always on the verge of becoming conventional.”

When it comes to fiction, a writer can have all the technical skills in the world but what will really, really set them apart is . . . drum roll with capitals: IMAGINATION.

A great realist; a great formalist - Canadian author Alice Munro
Profile Image for Paul Bryant.
2,215 reviews9,893 followers
December 1, 2018
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 the bus?

This jampacked little book is all about the why of novels, and it's got some high standards to apply to both novels and readers, so you better shape up, you readers you. Hey - I do mean YOU. Yeah. That's right.

It’s like James Wood expects us to be listening to some random tune and be able to name the bass player and the producer’s previous hits and the singer’s favourite drugs and where it got to in the charts and its relation to the minor essays of Jean-Paul Sartre and Flaubert’s left earlobe.

James Wood is like the gold standard reader. When you read David Foster Wallace you notice that he notices everything, I mean everything, and notices everything about himself noticing things and so on, and so forth. James Wood does all that while he reads every single novel. Not one word passes casually beneath the Wood eyeballs. Every phrase will be cross-examined. Every paragraph will have bamboo shoved up its fingernails until it confesses where it stands in regard to Stendahl, Balzac and Dostoyevsky. And Flaubert.

Frankly, I was outclassed. I was more than a little crushed. I was talked down to. It had been made clear that I'd got on the wrong bus. Me! Moi! As the trolley lurched round another bend I was turning distinctly green. It was all going so well when JW was discussing the free indirect style of modern narration which enables an indeterminate locus of reality to emerge which is not the character speaking and not the author either but a fifth dimension equipoised between the two. All that was great.

But then he gets in to character, a brief history of consciousness and sympathy and complexity. Then the full florid obsessions emerged – no more 20th century, only French and Russians! Balzac! More Flaubert*! Pushkin! Stendahl! Diderot! Chekhov! Tolstoy! Yeah, that’s right, punk! All those guys you never read! You were going to get round to them but well I don’t know but you just never did! Well, I bet you’re regretting that now because you can’t talk about fiction without an intimate knowledge of alla those guys. Sorry. I bet you want to slink off back into the night now doncha.
Go ahead, slink.

When the 20th century is reluctantly allowed into JW’s purview it’s Hardy (never read him), Buddenbrooks (never read it), Proust (same), Italo Svevo (huh?), Thomas Pynchon (no thanks) and Saul Bellow (oh, I read one by him – the wrong one).

It must be said out loud: James Wood is an old school patrician sneerer. Even though he’s earned the right to sneer a hundred times over, there’s still no need for it. Here’s where I gagged:

If prose is to be written as well as poetry novelists and readers must develop their own third ears. We have to read musically, testing the rhythm of a sentence, listening for the almost inaudible rustle of historical association clinging to the hems of modern words, attending to patterns, repetitions, echoes, deciding whether a metaphor is successful and another is not, judging how the perfect placement of the right verb or adjective seals a sentence with mathematical finality. We must proceed on the assumption that almost all prose popularly acclaimed as beautiful (“she writes like an angel”) is nothing of the sort, that almost every novelist will at some point be baselessly acclaimed for writing “beautifully” as almost all flowers are at some point acclaimed for smelling nice.

Is this not a bit nauseating? Get off of your high horse, JW! Maybe there are 41 other human beings who read the right books with the perfect superconsciousness using their perfect brains bulging with culture in the way that JW advises, but the rest of us are real people who sometimes read in the bath with the radio on. Some of us have actually not read Flaubert’s Sentimental Education! Think of that! Some of us – you may have to lie down for this – have no intention of reading Flaubert’s Sentimental Education! We are the plebs your culture warned you about.

However, at the end of this book we get 20 pages about realism. Here James Wood defends the idea that the business of fiction is to get real life in some way onto the printed page. Suddenly James Wood is my new best friend! Yes! It’s about time someone stuck it to those old haddocks William Gass and Roland Barthes. I love this:

Realism, seem broadly as truthfulness to the way things are, cannot be mere verisimilitude, cannot be mere lifelikeness, or lifesameness, but what I call lifeness : life on the page, life brought to different life by the highest artistry. And it cannot be a genre; instead, it makes the forms of fiction seem like genres. For realism of this kind is the origin. It teaches everyone else; it schools its truants.

So – what can I say – read the first 75 pages and the last 20, and don’t mess with Mr In-Between.


*We cannot write about rhythm and not refer to Flaubert, and so once again, as if unable to stop rereading the old letters of a former lover, I return to him. (Ugh)
Profile Image for s.penkevich.
964 reviews6,816 followers
March 28, 2015
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 before you've finished writing them; he is friend that talks about your band and is always there to support your band because somehow it makes him feel like he is part of the band, maybe even the key part. When I write on here I have to accept the fact that I am glorifying an art that puts stars in my eyes, but the more I point out theory and what does and doesn't work still in no way makes me feel as if I am able to create the art that I love to assess. Occasionally I have a bit of an existential crisis—everyone needs a good existential crisis from time to time—and wonder why I spent so much time writing about writing instead of simply attempting art myself (not that I'm a critic or am in any way qualified to give opinions on a book). Perhaps it is because I am no good at it but talking about it makes me feel like I can be part of that 'cool club' of artists, as if understanding Roberto Bolaño somehow makes me like one of the characters hanging out with him in his books that I so adore.

James Wood saves me from the despair of actually loving the idea of being a critic. To be honest, if you were to ask me 'what do you want to be when you grow up?' (because at 28 I still think of the future in this way and forget that I am 'grown up', because I sure as hell don't feel like it), I would answer that my 'rock-star' dream is to teach college lit and review books for the New Yorker. Just like my boy James Wood. Wood makes reviewing its own art form that is as equally valid and beautiful as literature itself. When I read his reviews, I read them with the same awe and critical eye as I do any novelist; the man packs theory and prose into tiny packages of literary power that paint a masterpiece of ideas on the canvas of a novel. Just today I was wowed by his review of The Buried Giant in which he managed to reveal all the novel's misgivings while capturing all the author's strengths. James Wood gives critics a good name, and his How Fiction Works is an immensely valuable read.

I learned more from this book than I did in all of college pursuing an English Degree. Wood tackles the theory and joy of an intensely impressive array of writers, probably pointing out even to them just what they get right or wrong (John Updike is used in some of the best 'do NOT do this' passages of the book). This book is indispensable to anyone hoping to look deeper into books and have the literary science to solidify your own opinion and will create an endless to-read list from all the examples he delivers. Wood is opinionated, and rather aggressively so, though I tend to often agree with him and even when I don't his opinions are so well argued that they are still a joy to read. I take this down off the shelf and read over select passages (it is one long essay broken up into mercifully short 'chapters') at least once every few months. This man has my rock-star job and just may be my hero.
Profile Image for Jean-Luke.
Author 1 book394 followers
December 9, 2020
What I love about books like this is that they are filled with gobbets (I rewatched The History Boys--also referenced at one point--not too long ago), including a casual reference to the ridiculousness that is Boney M., and allow me to dip into books I would never consider reading, or had up to that point never considered reading, without necessarily looking to agree or disagree with what is being said, instead just soaking it all in.

Narrating, Detail, Character--check, check check. A Brief History of Consciousness--che-eck? i.e. the point at which things took a very philosophical turn and my mantra became Just keep reading, just keep reading, pretty much reaffirming the fact that though I enjoyed J. M. Coetzee's novel on Dostoevsky (The Master of Petersburg), it is unlikely that I will ever actually read any Dostoevsky (devastating, I know). But it becomes readable again long before the end.

FYI, if I don't see Flaubert referenced in any book ever again, it'll be too soon. Had I been playing a drinking game and taken a shot every time Flaubert pops up, I'd have been dead drunk long before the last page. Or just dead. I'm worried I've developed some sort of psychological complex.
Profile Image for Annetius.
321 reviews91 followers
May 31, 2023
Γουντ, you’re so good, you’re so good, you’re so good, baby you’re so good… !

Τι φοβερό βιβλίο ήταν αυτό. Νομίζω πως αυτή την περίοδο όλος ο ντουνιάς διαβάζει αυτό το βιβλίο, μπήκα κι εγώ στο πλήθος υποκύπτοντας για άλλη μια φορά στο hype, αλλά χωρίς ούτε λίγο να το μετανιώσω γιατί το βιβλίο αξίζει πολύ. Ο Γουντ ξέφυγε από τα αντίστοιχα βαρύγδουπα, ψιλοελιτίστικα και ίσως και βαρετά θα τολμήσω να πω εγχειρίδια των μεντόρων της λογοτεχνίας, των παλιών δασκάλων όπως ο Μπλουμ (είχα κατά νου το «Πώς και γιατί διαβάζουμε» πλην ουδόλως δεν έχω την πρόθεση να μειώσω την αξία του). Όμως εδώ έχουμε μια φρεσκάδα στη γραφή –μια σαφώς λογοτεχνίζουσα γραφή– και μια γλώσσα προσιτή σε όλους αυτούς που φτιάχνονται με τη λογοτεχνία και δε βρίσκουν τις λέξεις για να επιχειρηματολογήσουν επ’ αυτού, να υποστηρίξουν από πού προκύπτει αυτή η τέρψη που τους δημιουργεί η ανάγνωση, να βρουν ποιοι είναι αυτοί οι λόγοι που κάνουν ένα βιβλίο λογοτεχνικό, απολαυστικό, τι παλιώνει και τι οφείλει να επανεφευρεθεί. Χωρισμένο έξυπνα ανά θεματικές όπως «μορφή», «λεπτομέρειες», «πλοκή», «χαρακτήρες», «μίμηση και ενσυναίσθηση» και άλλα, ανοίγει τα χαρτιά τής λογοτεχνίας και μας βάζει να γίνουμε πιο προσεκτικοί αναγνώστες. Είναι βέβαιο πως αυτό δε γίνεται «επειδή» διαβάσαμε αυτό το βιβλίο. Αυτό γίνεται με την εμπειρία αλλά και με το πόσο είμαστε διατεθειμένοι ως αναγνώστες να δαπανήσουμε περισσότερο χρόνο ώστε να γίνουμε περισσότερο μελετητές παρά φυλλομετρητές ενός βιβλίου. Άλλωστε δεν αξίζουν και όλα τα βιβλία την ίδια προσοχή και τον ίδιο χρόνο. Ο Γουντ υποδεικνύει τα δικά του παραδείγματα καλής λογοτεχνίας, δεν είναι απαραίτητο να συμφωνήσουμε σε όλα για να παραδεχτούμε πως το βιβλίο του είναι ζουμερό, καθόλου κουραστικό και πολύ σύγχρονο και φρέσκο.

Να πω κάτι και για τη δομή του βιβλίου. Τα αριθμημένα κεφαλαιάκια είναι ό,τι καλύτερο για τον σημερινό αναγνώστη τού οποίου η καθημερινότητα είναι και αυτή χωρισμένη σε δεκάδες κεφαλαιάκια, και ο ουσιαστικός χρόνος συγκέντρωσής του είναι απλώς διαλείμματα ανάμεσα σε δεκάδες περισπασμούς.

Σε τέτοιες περιπτώσεις, η άμεση εμπειρία της πλοκής (η αναγνωστική μας εμπειρία) μεταβάλλεται από τις μεταγενέστερες εμπειρίες της μορφής (την κριτική εμπειρία που έρχεται κατόπιν εορτής: η ανάγνωση που αναζητά το νόημα είναι πάντοτε μια διαπραγμάτευση ανάμεσα στην ενθουσιώδη ανακάλυψη του έργου και στην κατανόηση του έργου όταν πια η χαρά της ανακάλυψης έχει κάπως υποχωρήσει. Ένα σημάδι μοντερνισμού ή μεταμοντερνισμού σε ένα μυθιστόρημα όπως το Dept. of Speculation της Τζένυ Όφιλ είναι ότι η πλοκή (το γεγονός ότι διαβάζουμε για να μάθουμε «τι θα γίνει μετά») έχει απορροφηθεί πλήρως από τη μορφή. Η πλοκή έχει γίνει η μορφή που παίρνει το βιβλίο. Για να το πούμε απλά, η ανάγνωση ενός μυθιστορήματος όπως αυτό της Όφιλ εμπεριέχει πιο πολλή κριτική δραστηριότητα και λιγότερη ανακάλυψη.»

Η μεταφορά είναι κάτι ανάλογο με τη μυθοπλασία, γιατί θέτει μια ανταγωνιστική πραγματικότητα. Μας δείχνει ολόκληρη τη διεργασία της φαντασίας με μία και μόνη χειρονομία. Όταν συγκρίνω τα γκρίζ;α κεραμίδια μιας στέγης με τη ράχη ενός αρμαντίλο, –όπως έκανα νωρίτερα– την καράφλα στην κορυφή του κεφαλιού μου με έναν θερισμένο κύκλο στο χωράφι με τα στάχυα (ή στις πολύ κακές μου μέρες με τον κύκλο του χορταριού που γέρνει όταν ένα ελικόπτερο προσγειώνεται πάνω στο χωράφι), σας ζητώ να κάνετε αυτό ακριβώς που υποστήριζε ο Κόνραντ ότι πρέπει να αξιώνει η μυθοπλασία –να δείτε. Σας ζητώ να φανταστείτε μια άλλη διάσταση, να σκεφτείτε μια ομοιότητα. Κάθε μεταφορά ή παρομοίωση είναι μια μικρή μυθοπλαστική έκρηξη μέσα στην ευρύτερη μυθοπλασία του μυθιστορήματος ή του διηγήματος. […]»
Profile Image for Alan.
470 reviews212 followers
January 28, 2022
This marks the first time that I said “You know what? Screw it. I don’t want to miss out on all these works of literary criticism because I am afraid of a plot point being spoiled. That’s missing the point entirely.”

This must be what watching The Bachelorette feels like for some, getting ice cream ready and screaming at the tv to give X or Y the rose. Pure pornography for those who are as addicted to dissecting stories and books for all they are worth, to die a worthy death among the piles of books that they swear they “will get to at some point” but not before buying a few more. Unlike pornography, you can take many tips and tricks from this book into your next reading (well, no judgment either way). James Wood (this metaphor is falling apart as I type) grips you with his essays. I cannot help but wish that he was there to discuss every book that I read with me, pointing out his vision. Make no mistake, this is his vision, but when his vision is so acute, why wish for anything different?

A favourite quote of mine in this book (hurriedly starred and underlined, one of many per page in the book):

I think that novels tend to fail not when the characters are not vivid or deep enough, but when the novel in question has failed to teach us how to adapt to its conventions, has failed to manage a specific hunger for its own characters.
Profile Image for Terence.
1,168 reviews394 followers
November 13, 2008
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 books in this genre, Wood covers the elements of the novel - narrative, detail, character, dialog, realism & style - and briefly discusses its evolution (tracing some of those elements as far back as the biblical David).

While the whole work is impressive, I was taken with several particulars:

Here, Wood doesn't focus so much on differences between 1st person and 3rd person so much as on what he terms "free indirect style" - which is the tension between the author's perceptions and language and the character's. As examples of this he quotes from Henry James' What Maisie Knew (a successful balance) and John Updike's Terrorist (an unsuccessful attempt):

She knew governesses were poor; Miss Overmore was unmentionably and Mrs. Wix ever so publicly so. Neither this, however, nor the old brown frock nor the diadem nor the button, made a difference for Maisie in the charm put forth through everything, the charm of Mrs. Wix's conveying that somehow, in her ugliness and her poverty, she was peculiarly and soothingly safe; safer than any one in the world, than papa, than mamma, than the lady with the arched eyebrows; safe even, though so much less beautiful, than Miss Overmore, on whose loveliness, as she supposed it, the little girl was faintly conscious that one couldn't rest with quite the same tucked-in and kissed-for-good-night feeling. Mrs. Wix was as safe as Clara Matilda, who was in heaven and yet, embarrassingly, also in Kensal Green, where they had been together to see her little huddled grave. (p. 14)


Ahmad is eighteen. This is early April; again green sneaks, seed by seed, into the drab city's earthy crevices. He looks down from his new height and thinks that to the insects unseen in the grass he would be, if they had a consciousness like his, God. In the year past he has grown three inches, to six feet - more unseen materialist forces, working their will upon him. He will not grow any taller, he thinks, in this life or the next. If there is a next, an inner devil murmurs. What evidence beyond the Prophet's blazing and divinely inspired words proves that there is a next? Where would it be hidden? Who would forever stoke Hell's boilers? What infinite source of energy would maintain opulent Eden, feeding its dark-eyed houris, swelling its heavy-hanging fruits, renewing the streams and splashing fountains in which God, as described in the ninth sura of the Qur'an, take eternal good pleasure? What of the second law of thermodynamics? (pp. 27-8)

In the first excerpt, Wood argues that James authentically inhabits Maisie's mind and yet can pull away to show the world around her. Whereas, Ahmad is thinking the Updike's thoughts, not his own (As soon as we imagine a Christian version of this narration, we can guage Updike's awkward alienation from his character (p. 29))

Character is the most difficult aspect of the novel to invoke. All too often authors fall back on static imagery. (p. 95f) Good characters are invoked using the telling detail or the nontelling detail. I.e., we remember them because of what they do or fail to do. This applies both to main characters and incidental ones:

Ford Madox Ford...writes wonderfully about getting a character up and running - what he calls "getting a character in...." Ford...loved a sentence from a Maupassant story, "La Reine Hortense": "He was a gentleman with red whiskers who always went first through a doorway." Ford comments: "That gentleman is so sufficiently got in that you need no more of him to understand how he will act. He has been 'got in' and can get to work at once." (pp. 96-7)

Word's section titled "Brief History of Consciousness" also stands out in my mind. Here, he traces how story telling evolved from King David, all external action, to Macbeth, a tale of "publicized privacy," to Raskolnikov (Crime and Punishment), where the character "is being watched by us, the readers." (p. 146) This makes possible the novel as analyst of psychological/internal motives like no other medium before or since. (pp. 147-8)

As before with "character," Wood quotes extensively from Ford's The English Novel and his memoir of Joseph Conrad: It was to Diderot...that the Novel owes its next great step forward.... At that point it became suddenly evident that the Novel as such was capable of being regarded as a means of profoundly serious and many-sided discussion and therefore a medium of profoundly serious investigation into the human case. (p. 165) And, What was the matter with the Novel...was that it went straight forward, whereas in your gradual making acquaintanceship with your fellows you never do go straight forward.... To get such a man in fiction you could not begin at his beginning and work his life chronologically to the end. You must first get him in with a strong impression and then work backwards and forwards over his past. (pp. 166-7)

A few other highlights from the book:
Section 97: The novel explores the complexity of human life - the contradictions and compromises all must make with themselves and others to live: Of course, the novel does not provide philosophical answers.... Instead...it gives the best account of the complexity of our moral fabric. (pp. 178-9)

Section 103f: "Rhythm and Music" Having learned to discern (however faintly, in my case) the rhythms of good prose, it's difficult to read just anything. But as in music, you develop an ear for what you like and respond to. Thus, I like the cadences of Ursula Le Guin or Steve Erickson or James Branch Cabell but Robert Heinlein or Thomas Pynchon grate.

In these sections, too, Wood raises problems of translation. E.g., Flaubert's original "L'idee d'avoir engendre le delectait" loses its "music" in English. I've always wished I could read the original Russian because I can't know whether I like Chekhov and Dostoyevsky or their translators.

To finish out this section, an observation (paraphrased): The good novelist balances free indirect speech with style - the "music" of a sentence.

Finally, toward the end of the book, Wood illustrates the competent but uninspired prose of much fiction (using an excerpt from Le Carre's Smiley's People (p. 231)). It's not bad writing but it takes few risks ("thin" hotel). The serious writer should reject "mere photographic fidelity, because art selects and shapes." (p. 240)

I read a review in The New York Review of Books (Nov. 20, 2008, Vol. LV, No. 18) after finishing this book that, I think, nicely sums up what Wood is doing: This, surely, is the heart of Wood's argument, that we go to fiction for many reasons...but what we are really in search of is not fiction, but life itself. 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. (NYRB, p. 88)

If the length of this review is any indication, you can see that I'm quite taken with this book and will be buying my own copy as soon as it comes out in paperback or I can get a cheap, used copy.
Profile Image for MJ Nicholls.
2,049 reviews4,117 followers
March 17, 2013
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 milks for the whole book while soldering his argument into the pages. Never disagree with The Gass. Hauntings and such to be feared. I have nothing else to add. Regard the four stars and begone.
Profile Image for Ken.
Author 3 books969 followers
January 22, 2020
I thought this book would be written more with a writerly-slant, but no. More with a readerly-slant, turns out. Still, as a writer wading into novel-writing, you can pick up a thing or two. Up to you, I imagine Wood thinking. He's more about educating readers.

The good thing? This is mostly approached in layman's terms. It does not come across as high-falutin', ivory tower, show-off talk (that is, when authors have an audience of fellow professors in mind).

The other good thing? Wood uses so many excerpts by way of example, you will find yourself wanting to read some of the books he alludes to. For me that would be books like The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis (Saramago), Sabbath's Theater (Roth), Seize the Day (Bellow), The Waves (Woolf), The Rainbow (Lawrence), and Wittgenstein's Nephew (Bernhard) to name a few.

It's always embarrassing to see how not-so-well-read you are when you read books about reading, isn't it?

Anyway, the sections of the book give you an idea about where James Wood goes with this: "Narrating," "Flaubert and Modern Narrative," "Flaubert and the Rise of the Flaneur," "Detail," "Character," "A Brief History of Consciousness," "Sympathy and Complexity," "Language," "Dialogue," and "Truth, Convention, Realism."

The "Realism" discussion at the end is amusing. Nobody quite agrees on what is real, and many newer writers like to pile on and dis "realism" in very realistic ways.

Whatever. I leave that to the philosophers, who also disagree on what a chair is. This is, in the end, a book you'll enjoy if you like reading about reading. It's big print, it's fast, and it drops names and quotes like a baby drops food from the high chair.

What's not to like?
Profile Image for Michael.
Author 2 books347 followers
August 10, 2020
021116: this is gently deceptive as a title: this is not how 'fiction' works but how a 'sort' of fiction works. which happens to be his 'sort' and likely to be the 'sort' that interests someone who would read a book like this. on the one, acknowledged classics, admired contemporary, widely sourced. on the other, neither breathtakingly popular, which might garner readers for possibly non-literary reasons such as this movie or that event or person, nor obscurely involved in literary exploration of exactly what he says is needed to make 'fiction work', such as 'character', 'narrator', 'voice' and so on...

it is brief. it is concise. it is clear. it has a good bibliography. and i discover, by the number of said books read, that yes i am someone who would read a book like this...
Profile Image for Eva Pliakou.
108 reviews167 followers
May 11, 2023
«Η λογοτεχνία μας κάνει να παρατηρούμε καλύτερα τη ζωή· στην πορεία ασκούμαστε στην ίδια τη ζωή· πράγμα που με τη σειρά του μας κάνει να διαβάζουμε καλύτερα τη λεπτομέρεια στη λογοτεχνία· που με τη σειρά του μας κάνει καλύτερους αναγνώστες της ζωής, και ούτω ­καθεξής. Όποιος διδάσκει λογοτεχνία αντιλαμβάνεται αμέσως ότι οι περισσότεροι νέοι αναγνώστες δεν είναι καλοί στην παρατήρηση. Ξέρω και ο ίδιος από τα παλιά μου βιβλία, με τις αμέτρητες σημειώσεις που έγραφα είκοσι χρόνια πριν ως φοιτητής, ότι υπογράμμιζα συστηματικά με ενθουσιασμό λεπτομέρειες και εικόνες και μεταφορές που τώρα μου φαίνονται κοινότοπες, ενώ προσπερνούσα ανύποπτος πράγματα που σήμερα μου φαίνονται εκπληκτικά. Μεγαλώ­νουμε, ως αναγνώστες, και οι εικοσάρηδες είναι σχεδόν παρθένοι. Δεν έχουν ακόμη διαβάσει αρκετή λογοτεχνία ώστε να έχουν διδαχθεί από αυτήν πώς να τη διαβάζουν.»
Profile Image for Nelson Zagalo.
Author 10 books333 followers
November 22, 2020
"A Mecânica da Ficção", ou "How Fiction Works" (2008) de James Wood, não é um livro sobre escrita, nem sobre os processos de criação ficcional, é antes um livro sobre elementos da escrita que despoletam mundos de ficção, pelo que devemos partir para a leitura percebendo que a ficção acontece na interação entre o texto e a imaginação de quem lê. Assim, o que Wood faz é uma discussão sobre aquilo que o leitor e crítico leem, veem e sentem quando tornam em ficção as palavras presentes na folha de papel. Não é uma obra sobre os processo psicológicos de criação dessa ficção porque se cinge ao que está escrito, ao que vem no papel, não elaborando sobre os processos pelo meio dos quais, nós leitores, efabulamos a ficção. Dito isto, é um texto sobre estética, ou seja, a experiência da obra de arte, na sua assunção direta, na interpretação do que vemos, lemos e sentimos, sem procurar compreender o como, ou seja, a psicologia do autor, no modo como ele age e cria a escrita, e do leitor, no modo como ele infere e cria o imaginário. Funciona como boa introdução à análise literária, mas não deve ser visto como compêndio de técnicas de escrita nem de percepção narrativa.

Exposto o alerta, o texto de Wood é excelente para quem deseja compreender melhor a análise da ficção, nomeadamente da ficção criada por meio de texto. A sua leitura ajuda-nos a entender porque certas obras são consideradas melhores do que outras, além de nos ajudar a compreender a evolução histórica da arte literária, assim como o modo como se processa essa evolução.

O resto da análise conta com muitos excertos que prefiro manter no blog por causa da formatação. Podem ler em: https://virtual-illusion.blogspot.com...
Profile Image for Thanos.
49 reviews26 followers
July 25, 2023
Μια διεισδυτική ματιά στα άδυτα της λογοτεχνίας· μια σπουδή στο πως αντιλαμβανόμαστε τη λογοτεχνία, στο πως γράφεται η λογοτεχνία, στο πως δουλεύει η λογοτεχνία. Γιατί είναι σημαντικές οι μεταφορές και σε ποιες περιπτώσεις λειτουργούν καλύτερα; Γιατί δεν έχει τόση σημασία ��ν ένας χαρακτήρας είναι σφαιρικός ή επίπεδος; Γιατί ενώ υπάρχουν τόσα κλισε συνεχίζουν να μας συναρπάζουν λες και έχουν γραφτεί πρώτη φορά; Από τη Γουλφ, την Ώστεν και τον Φλωμπερ (για τον όποιον ο συγγραφέας πλέκει ένα λαμπρό εγκώμιο) μέχρι τον Φίλιπ Ροθ και τον Ρομπερτο Μπολάνιο, όλες οι μορφές εξέλιξης της γραφής, της πλοκής και των χαρακτήρων παρουσιάζονται λεπτομερώς σε μικρές ενότητες σαν slides σε παρουσίαση, με μεστό λόγο, έξυπνο χιούμορ και απολαυστικά παραδείγματα. Ένα must βιβλίο για όσους γράφουν, για όσους θέλουν να γράψουν, για όσους διαβάζουν αλλά και για όσους θέλο��ν να διαβάζουν πραγματικά και να μην προσπερνούν επιφανειακά τις σελίδες.
Profile Image for Rena Luna.
181 reviews85 followers
June 26, 2023
''Τι εννοούσε λοιπόν ο Φλωμπέρ ως ύφος, ως μουσική της πρότασης; Ένα παράδειγμα από την Κυρία Μποβαρύ - Ο Σαρλ είναι ηλίθια περήφανος που άφησε έγκυο την Έμμα: «L'idée d'avoir engendré le délectait». Τόσο πυκνό, τόσο ακριβές, τόσο ρυθμικό. Κατά λέξη σημαίνει: «Η ιδέα ότι είχε γονιμοποιήσει τον καταευχαριστούσε». Ο Τζέφρυ Γουόλ, στη μετάφραση του Penguin, το αποδίδει ως εξής: «The thought of having impregnated her was delectable to him». [Και ο Κων/νος Θεοτόκης: «Η ιδέα πως καρποφόρησε τον γέμιζε ηδονή»]. Καλή λύση , αλλά είναι να λυπάσαι τον κακόμοιρο μεταφραστή. Το αποτέλεσμα δεν είναι παρά μια σκιά του πρωτοτύπου. Αν διαβάσουμε το γαλλικό κείμενο δυνατά, όπως θα έκανε ο Φλωμπέρ, ακούμε τέσσερα μικρά «ε» σε τρεις λέξεις: «l' idée, engendré, délectait». Μια μετάφραση που θα επιχειρούσε να μιμηθεί την αμετάφραστη μουσική του γαλλικού - που θα προσπαθούσε να μιμηθεί το ρυθμό - θα ακουγόταν σαν κακό χιπ-χοπ: «Η ιδέα πως γεννάει έκανε την καρδιά του να πετάει».''

Πρόκειται για ένα εξαιρετικό έργο ανάλυσης της διακειμενικότητας και της μυθοπλαστικότητας που σκαρφάλωσε σχεδόν αμέσως στην κορυφή της εκτίμησής μου. Ο Γουντ διαχωρίζεται αμέσως από τον ελιτισμό και τις ψιλομύτικες εστέτ παγίδες της λογοτεχνίας, με σημαντικότητα και βάρος, όχι γιατί αρνείται πως συχνά η κλασική λογοτεχνία είναι μια σύμβαση που αντανακλά τις πολιτικές προσδοκίες της εποχής, αλλά γιατί, αγαπά τη λογοτεχνία, και μια παράγραφός του είναι ίση με μια κάψουλα πολλαπλών αναγνωστικών εμπειριών.

Φρέσκια ματιά, μακριά από έδρανα που σαπίζει πάνω τους η λευκή κιμωλία, με κάθε όρεξη να αναλύσει τον αδιάφορο ή τον παντεπόπτη αφηγητή, έτοιμος να βρει ευφάνταστα και ακριβή στοιχεία ανάμεσα σε Δον Κιχώτη και αρχαία τραγωδία.

Φυσικά και για να φτάσει κανείς σε ένα τόσο εύχυμο δοκίμιο, οφείλει να είναι ο προσεκτικός αναγνώστης, ο καλός λογοτεχνικός μαθητής που δεν ξεχνάει τίποτα. Ο Γουντ είναι αυτός, αποκαλυπτικός και χρήσιμος, δικαιώνοντας με απλότητα τον ρόλο του (επι)κριτικού, αποδεικνύοντας πως ο κριτικός είναι ένας ακόμα παθιασμένος αναγνώστης που δεν μπορεί να συγκρατηθεί καθόλου, αντιμετωπίζοντας τη λογοτεχνία κυρίως ερωτικά.
Profile Image for Gabriel.
Author 14 books133 followers
March 12, 2015
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 readers to distrust any further commentary, ignoring the fact that this was itself commentary.

To a certain extent, and for a certain population, this was perhaps sound advice. It is also, of course, extraordinarily backward, reactionary, and dangerous advice. It was written in reaction to an ever-increasingly abstruse theology that, by the dawn of the 20th century, required a theologian to untangle even the most basic questions. What could a lay person do? Where to turn for answers?

This is an extreme analogy to make, but James Wood's How Fiction Works is close in spirit, if only in spirit, to the volumes of Dixon and Torrey's work. Wood's book, at its core, is deeply reactionary and resistant to the impulse for change, and it threatens the nascent study of its subject with extinction, or, at the very least, irrelevance in the face of a tradition that becomes all-encompassing.

And this much is obvious, or should be, with every sentence. Though Wood constantly brandishes the umbrella term "realism" or "Realism," he means to encompass all of writing up to this point, including works that many other critics--and frequently their authors as well--would not dare to call "realist." And this, in itself, is an admirable goal, tied to Wood's great facility in explaining why this should be. All works operate under the same conditions, and deal with the same medium, have similar goals in mind-- why shouldn't they be lumped together? Others have made the same point (for instance, Robbe-Grillet, who Wood quotes on this very point).

But this is where Wood's imagination fails him. Because he has a very definite idea of fiction's aspirations, of the aspirations of each entirely individual and idiosyncratic writer, Wood has failed to imagine that there might be something even deeper, even more fundamental, to "How Fiction Works." He has so fallen under the spell of mimesis, of hypotyposis, that he refuses to admit that there might be some other goal, some other potentiality, that neither discounts nor ignores the mimetic quality of fiction, to fiction itself.

I adduce for proof William Gass's collection of short fiction, In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, which I feel certain that Wood has read, and seems willfully to have forgotten in his desperate search for a scapegoat. Gass comes up often in the guise of Wood's straw man, largely due to a very short passage in one essay from Gass's very first collection of essays, Fiction and the Figures of Life.

But In the Heart... both adheres closely to Wood's ideals and to Gass's theories. And to anyone who has read only the Wood, this would seem impossible, just as an explanation of dinosaurs walking the earth hundreds of millions of years ago would seem impossible to a Fundamentalist. But nonetheless, it is so. At least, I am humble enough to say, "the great majority of mankind believes it to be so." This is because Gass's stories do not in any way traverse Wood's ideas of triple-writing (indeed, they exemplify it, bring it to altogether new levels), but they also do something else, something which is at the heart of Gass's essays, something that Wood would not acknowledge as even being possible in fiction.

Wood seems to believe that there is nothing beyond the outwardly obvious events and the inwardly intuited experiences of everyday life for the author to seek to represent in fiction, because this is all that has been done so far (according to his lights). And he is bold enough to say that this goes not only for fiction, but for all the arts.

But we know intuitively that this not the case. We know this because we know that, were it so, we could never experience anything new through the arts. Even if the feeling is felt only as a great, nauseating unease, we can recognize that something new, something altogether different, has happened to us. We hope for it, because it is a thrill, if rather more like falling from a great height than one would hope for in "real life." Without that sense of hope, shared by the artist, the arts would calcify, cease to grow and mutate along with our changing world. Or perhaps, with the plastic arts concretized, the world outside of art would cease to change. We will never know, because it will never happen.

Gass's essays, for those who would essay them, would tell them as much-- Gass has an extraordinarily brilliant and clear way of explaining very abstract concepts, which, sadly, Wood does not share. Gass has ideas to share and wants very badly to share them, requiring him to be absolutely clear and precise (if not always immediately, read easily, intelligle), while Wood, on the other hand, devolves to a kind of divine ecstasy in order to cover over his lack of ideas. This ecstasy is something to be admired-- it is very frequently beautiful and persuasive. But it is not therefore a truer picture of fiction.

What Wood presents is, at its essence, nothing more than a reverse-engineered synthesis of fiction to this point in time. A synthesis is, of necessity, reverse-engineered of course, but, as with anything that is reverse-engineered, it is not durable. This unlikely contraption works for its intended purpose only, and when called upon for any other purpose whatever, flies apart immediately and without any measure of success. Wood's synthesis may explain satisfactorily his bloated idea of "realism," but for how long?

Most of the criticism of this book has centered on this very problem, and with good reason. Wood's ideas of how fiction works admit no light, and no thought, to shine through them. They are hard and fast, despite being rather vague, precisely because they are reactionary. This book is how to read fiction, perhaps; certainly not how to write it. There is no room for real innovation, nor even for any real, sustained analysis, in Wood's idea of how fiction works. Thus, he rejects Gass's perspective entirely, as he must, in order to protect his carefully pruned system from exploding chaotically into the profusion that we can all accept as reality.

When, for example, Gass essays "The Concept of Character in Fiction," he is not, whatever Wood claims here, attempting to destroy the idea of character in fiction. He is simply trying to explain it, at a depth that Wood does not even approach. As a reader and a critic, Wood may be perfectly content to remain at the surface, but as a creator, the writer who reads this book should beware-- these ideas will not permit any inquiry into "how fiction works." They will simply point you back to the great works already written, saying "That is how it is done. No reason to try anything else."
Profile Image for Justin Evans.
1,553 reviews812 followers
April 4, 2013
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 pants, pith helmets and edible underwear: maybe it can't, but that's probably for the best. And, pace Kirn, Wood can write--the fact that he doesn't feel the need to dip his penis in LSD prior to yawping about his own genius is, I think, a virtue.

And then it all falls to pieces, because Wood is not only propagandizing for his own view of what good fiction is--as any critic should do. He also pretends that all good literature is what he thinks good literature is. I'm fine with someone writing a book about how 'realism' is the central impulse behind writing fiction, and saying that that realism consists in 'visual noticing,' detail (visual and or intellectual), sympathy with others, and revealing to us the motives of characters without spelling it out to us. I disagree, but this is a decent statement of a reasonable position.

When you end up saying things like: "Shakespeare is essentially being a novelist" when Lady Macbeth and Macbeth have an argument onstage, or that Pope's 'Rape of the Lock' is "an early form of free indirect style," you can only do damage to those works or our understanding of them. The fact that Pope's work and Shakespeare's works are great *despite* not being realism suggests that fiction can be great without being what Wood considers realism. Claiming them for your argument is underhanded, like saying Karl Malone is a Laker great because he played one season for the Lakers; any sensible understanding of his career sees him as a Jazz great.

And it goes downhill from there. Wood considers plot to be essentially juvenile (his words, 149), he has nothing interesting to say about dialogue, and concludes that fiction is concerned mainly to accurately see "the way things are", that is, to be true to life. Therefore, any literature that tries mainly to do something else (e.g., tries to make you laugh, tries to make you cry, tries to suggest how things *should* be, complains about the way things are) falls outside his understanding of fiction, unless it's so great (Shakespeare; Pope; Kafka is about how it would feel to be an insect) that it just can't be doing anything other than what a few nineteenth and twentieth century novelists are trying to do.

Wood has written a polemic against the likes of Roland Barthes, without understanding the force of their argument--an argument that is, I agree, foolish and misguided. He quotes Barthes:

"The function of narrative is not to 'represent,' it is to constitute a spectacle still very enigmatic for us but in any case not of a mimetic order... 'what takes place' in narrative is, from the referential (reality) point of view literally nothing; 'what happens' is language alone, the adventure of language, the unceasing celebration of its coming."

Wood argues against

i) the obviously true claim that literature doesn't refer to anything. But, to take one of Wood's own examples: Isabel Archer does not exist, therefore the name Isabel Archer is not referring to some actually existing thing. Something else is going on. How is that anything other than a statement of fact?
ii) Barthes's opposition to conventionality. Despite the fact that there is no mention here of conventionality, Wood assumes that the argument must be something like 'because fiction uses conventions, it can't refer to reality.' And that that is an attack on conventions in literature.

His response is to say that everything is conventional, therefore Barthes is talking nonsense. But the the really obnoxious bit here is the completely unfounded claim that literature is just the celebration of the 'coming' of language, a human tool that Barthes (and many others) more or less deify. If that was true, there'd be no reason to read one thing rather than another. My review of this book would be just as celebratory of language's coming down from the heavens as would, say, Gulliver's Travels.

Barthes makes language a god, and Wood claims that there is one thing that authors are trying to do. They're both wrong. Authors try to do different things at different times, many of them try to do those things well, and you need to use different standards for different works. Barthes' work was an okay explanation and spirited defense of one thing that a couple of authors did in the sixties. Wood's book is a great explanation and defense of *one* thing that authors have done for the last 200 years. But to claim anything more for 'realism' than that is to do a tremendous disservice to the wonderful range of literature out there, everything from invective to epic, from Jane Austen to Javier Marias. You should read this book, so you'll know about the two extreme positions; and then you should read The Memoirs of Martinus Scriblerus, to remind yourself that both Barthes and Wood are dead wrong.


* I find it hard to think of any book the citation of which is more likely to make me viscerally disagree with or even hate you, than those three. One is a children's book, one is slumming drug-lit drivel by an otherwise talented author, and one is Americo-libertarian drivel that should come with a #firstworldproblems warning. And all of are considered masterpieces. It's too bizarre.
Profile Image for Ben Winch.
Author 4 books358 followers
January 4, 2022
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,' all young men with ambition or young women with emotion, all remarks like 'Darling, I've found the most wonderful cottage' (flat, castle), 'Ask me another time, dearest, only please - just this once - not now,' 'Love you - of course I love you' (don't love you) - and 'It's not that, it's only I feel so terribly tired.'

Forbidden names: Hugo, Peter, Sebastian, Adrian, Ivor, Julian, Pamela, Chloe, Enid, Inez, Miranda, Joanna, Jill, Felicity, Phyllis.

Forbidden faces: all young men with curly hair or remarkable eyes, all gaunt haggard thinkers' faces, all faunlike characters, anybody over six feet, or with any distinction whatever, and all women with a nape to their neck (he loved the way her hair curled in the little hollow at the nape of her neck).

Ha! I'd add: any fictional recreation of the Holocaust or the Second World War, especially by Anglo writers living in peacetime; any description of a character from a photograph ('I am looking at a photograph of my mother...'); any story of adultery set in a university; any opening pages involving dream sequences, airports, holidays at the beach, characters in hospital, characters in prison, characters over 60 years old written by writers under 30; any attempt to reproduce the form of e-mails, text-messages, chat-room threads; any mention of any technology at all...

Joking aside, aside from the Connolly quote this is a good book, and not the narrow Chekhov-and-Flaubert-obsessed 'realist' tract that some critics have accused it of being. (There's a discussion of Saramago's Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis which shows an appreciation for something beyond so-called realism, and which, along with the bit about Diderot's Rameau's Nephew, was the other most interesting part of the book for me.) That said, I don't think it's either groundbreaking or comprehensive - more a methodical reiteration of some fundamental precepts. But what it does, it does well.
Profile Image for Jonfaith.
1,888 reviews1,415 followers
June 2, 2021
Convention itself, like metaphor itself, is not dead; but it is always dying.

Despite the relatively brief numbered sections, I hazard to guess this wouldn't have been impactful if it was read over an extended period. I devoured this in two sittings and found the arguments to be but successive waves, perhaps sufficient to knock one asunder but when viewed as a type are nearly indistinguishable.

Aside from clarifying terms and dwelling upon focus, character complexity (the dreaded roundness) and unconsummated aspect of novels, How Fiction Works offers this rich tapestry of example and citation, one that makes this a wonderful experience. Perhaps I am suggesting this is a members-only sort of enjoyment. The book is exclusive if it is to be effective--and the titular "works" is towards pleasure not mechanics.
Profile Image for brian   .
248 reviews3,119 followers
June 5, 2016
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 exist, one of y’all should write it. i’m thinking a ginnie jones & mike reynolds collaboration (while me and david stand on the sidelines making faces and farting noises with our armpits).
Profile Image for Jonathan Terrington.
595 reviews572 followers
September 7, 2012

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 important thing that is unique to fiction or plays a highly important part. Narration, narrative, detail, characters, consciousness, language and even realism are all woven into a kind of patchwork. There is no real conclusion to his book it's more a kind of theoretical analysis of what goes on in books. And it's all incredibly fascinating.

There are some sections which are cruder than others, by which I mean rougher and less polished, but on the whole it's very well written. I found the whole aspect of Wood's writing about free indirect style, author's choices in novels and how language can take on a life of its own fascinating. I fully recommend this book for a look at the theory of fiction and to provide readers a way of looking at writer's choices in a different light.
Profile Image for Bülent Ö. .
267 reviews121 followers
June 13, 2018

Çok faydalı ve okuması keyifli bir kuramsal eser.

Kurmacaya dair yeni ufuklar açıyor, okurken farketmediğimiz edebi değerleri görünür kılıyor.

Kurmaca eserlerdeki, karakter, anlatım, üslup, gerçekçilik vs. üzerine doyurucu fikirler ve bu fikirlere dair işe yarar örnekler veriyor.

Okunması elzem.
Profile Image for Lea.
891 reviews192 followers
February 11, 2019
This book lay next to my bed for over a year, half-way read through. It confused me greatly, and a lot of things went over my head. I got the feeling James Wood really had no problem losing me right away. When he talks about novels and tells you what he think is happening there, structurally or stylistically, he expects you to have read them and know the characters names by heart. Which meant whenever he talked about authors I've read - Sartre, Mann, Austen, Roth, Foster Wallace, etc - I could follow and found some of the things he said enlightening. And whenever he talked of authors I hadn't read - Flaubert & most of the Russians - I felt instantly lost.

This is highly pretentious both in its wording and the structure (over 100 short, numbered paragraphs), as well as in how sure James Wood is of himself and is assertions. Still, there were interesting notes and the book did get me wondering about the pros and cons of realism and realistic style. Also, it made me want to read some of the books he talked about that I haven't read yet. His enthusiasm for them was really tangible.

This is not so much a book for writers (or not meant to be), as it is a book for seasoned readers.

We have to read musically, testing the precision and rhythm of a sentence, listening for the almost inaudible rustle of historical association clinging to the hems of modern words, attending to patterns, repetitions, echoes, deciding why one metaphor is successful and another is not, judging how the perfect placement of the right verb or adjective seals a sentence with mathematical finality.
Profile Image for Narges Moini.
50 reviews119 followers
April 25, 2018
ترجمه‌ی آراز بارسقیان از این کتاب داره به تدریج در سایت الف‌یا منتشر می‌شه.
داستان چطوری کار می‌کند

دو نکته درباره‌ی این کتاب برای من حائز اهمیت بود. اول اینکه از تقسیم‌بندی‌های عناصر داستان و شخصیت پیچیده و ساده و اینجور کلیشه‌ها که -مخصوصا با انتشار پی‌درپی کتاب‌های افرادی مثل آقای میرصادقی- در ذهن ما جای‌گیر شدن فراتر می‌ره و نکات جدیدی درباره‌ی این عناصر مختلف مطرح می‌کنه که خیلی منعطف‌تر از مدل پیشنهادی فورستر/میرصادقی(!)ه.*
دوم اینکه نویسنده اصلا کلی‌گویی بیخودی نکرده و همه‌جا با اشاره به مثال‌های متعدد حرفش رو می‌زنه. در عین حال اونقدری در کلوز ریدینگ مثال‌هاش غرق نشده که نتونه حرف جامع و فراگیری بزنه. به همین خاطره که من ِ خواننده که اکثر کتاب‌های مورد اشاره رو نخونده ام هم با متن ارتباط برقرار می‌کردم و با استفاده از مثال‌هایی که نویسنده آورده، نکته‌هاش رو بهتر می‌فهمیدم.

* اگر دنبال شنیدن حرف‌های تازه‌ای از این دست هستید حتما این دو فصل رو بخونید:
Character و Truth, Convention, Realism

متن انگلیسیش رو هم از اینجا می‌تونید دانلود کنید.
Profile Image for Teresa.
1,492 reviews
November 2, 2015
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 cap��tulo 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 personagem duplamente ficcional. Escusado será dizer que fiquei muito orgulhosa e, nem que fosse só por isso, valeu a pena ler este livro. Mas não só por isso...também porque me despertou para pormenores que, embora intuitivamente os soubesse, nunca tinha pensado neles e que, provavelmente, me vão tornar uma leitora mais atenta e, consequentemente, melhor. (Ou talvez não...)
Profile Image for Craig.
72 reviews24 followers
November 13, 2020
More of a very long essay than a book, and comprising an uneven mixture of mere sketches and comparatively thorough studies ranging from the conventional and orthodox to the relatively idiosyncratic--but this is a wonderfully accessible survey of the technical features of fiction. A strength is its close readings of select passages, which are exemplary in two senses: they get the demonstrative job done extremely well, and they are themselves a fine study in the art of close reading itself. I sometimes found myself wanting more, especially in some of the shortest, vignette-like chapters--but it's not the worst feeling to have about a book to wonder why there isn't more of it.
Profile Image for Ben Loory.
Author 24 books694 followers
February 3, 2014
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 i'd read a saul bellow book instead.
Profile Image for Murat Dural.
Author 14 books565 followers
February 28, 2022
Kuramsal okumalar içinde muhakkak edinilip okunması gereken bir eser. İlk cümlemi biraz daha derinleştirmek zorundayım çünkü içerikteki bölümler, anlatım gittikçe normal okuyucuyu hatta yazma serüveninin başındaki insanları yoracak şekile bürünüyor. Buna rağmen James Wood'un bakış açısı, buna dayanarak verdiği örnekler önemli. Edinilmeli ama hangi aşamada edinilmeli? Öncelik durumu nedir? Kesinlikle normal okur için değil ama edebiyat emektarları için bir sürü parantez içi, güzel bilgi barındıran bir kuramsal kitap olarak okumaların ileri aşamasında göz atılması gereken, uzunluğu ve dili belli bir noktadan sonra makul bir eser.
Profile Image for erigibbi.
865 reviews669 followers
February 22, 2023

Un critico - non uno scrittore - che ti vorrebbe insegnare cose sulla scrittura senza portare nulla di concreto e al massimo inserendoci esempi di libri e autori CLASSICI. Bah.
Profile Image for David.
865 reviews1,338 followers
November 27, 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 in fiction. Refreshingly, the ratio of positive to negative examples is high, so that we are treated to eloquence inspired by enthusiasm, rather than critical disregard, for the most part. His insights on Chekhov, Joyce, Nabokov (to name just a few) prompt me to go back and (re)read the work in question.

On the other hand -

Although I didn't find his style overtly pompous, there is an inescapable aura that one is reading dispatches from what Walter Kirn, in his wicked New York Times takedown*, refers to as "someone who has attained the detached, big-picture perspective of an orbiting critical satellite". A slightly offputting air of omniscience.

An enthusiasm for Flaubert (and, to a lesser extent, Henry James) that borders on burbling adulation. There's nothing wrong with this, of course, but when coupled with what appears to be a blanket dislike for almost everything even remotely postmodern, one begins to feel that Wood might be a helpful guide only for a certain subclass of fiction.
David Foster Wallace, for example, gets dissed several times throughout the book, with little recognition of his considerable talent and influence. Of the 90 or so works referred to in the book, only 20 date from 1965 or later.

On balance, though, I very much enjoyed the book. For a perfectly valid, and thoroughly amusing, view to the contrary, see Walter Kirn's NYT review at the link below.

*: link to Kirn's review is here - http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/17/boo...
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