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How Fiction Works

really liked it 4.00  ·  Rating details ·  6,585 ratings  ·  975 reviews
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 questio ...more
Paperback, 265 pages
Published 2009 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (first published February 7th 2008)
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Glenn Russell
Oct 27, 2016 rated it it was amazing

“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
Jan 30, 2012 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 13, 2015 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 ...more
Aug 06, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
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 Hi
Jan 28, 2022 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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 bo
Sep 02, 2008 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
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
Jan 22, 2020 rated it really liked it
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
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 ...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
Ben Winch
Sep 03, 2012 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,
Jun 02, 2021 rated it really liked it
Shelves: crit
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 un
Aug 21, 2008 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 exist,
Justin Evans
Apr 04, 2013 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
Nov 01, 2021 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2_nonfiction
In Orwell’s essay “A Hanging,” the writer watches the condemned man, walking toward the gallows, swerve to avoid a puddle. For Orwell, this represents precisely what he calls the “mystery” of the life that is about to be taken: when there is no good reason for it, the condemned man is still thinking about keeping his shoes clean. It is an “irrelevant” act (and a marvelous bit of noticing on Orwell’s part). Now suppose this were not an essay but a piece of fiction. And indeed there has been a fai
Jonathan Terrington

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
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 f ...more
Nov 13, 2020 rated it really liked it
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 som ...more
Ben Loory
Feb 03, 2014 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
Nov 27, 2008 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
Manan Desai
To begin with, title is misleading. You expect a simplified yet exhaustive explanation of fiction from the title. Instead what you get is a short scholarly exposition of literary theory.

That is not to say that this book is only for literature students and literary critics. There are good parts in it with simple explanation of various literary aspects of fiction.

Chapters on narration and detail are particularly interesting and eye-opening. About one third of the book deals with varieties of narra
Lee Klein
Aug 11, 2008 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
Aug 12, 2008 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.
Aug 20, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: lit-crit, books-i-own
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
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. ...more
Jun 18, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2013
I basically underlined this entire book.
George K. Ilsley
Jul 29, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Some people are so very smart. If only I were smarter, I would be better able to appreciate these smart people.

James Wood approaches his topic with curiosity and enthusiasm, and offers clarity and examples from literature. Parts of this book were excellent, and other parts flew past me, way over my head.

Absolutely worth reading and re-reading. Next time, I'll try reaching higher.

“Falsehood is so easy, truth so difficult” according to George Eliot. But writing fiction is a precarious combination
Feb 16, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
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.
Samuel Bigglesworth
Aug 12, 2018 rated it really liked it
The main learning from this is about free indirect form. Very interesting. It's a technique I've used a lot because it feels natural, but never heard it defined or discussed before. It's good to read someone breaking it down. Also the section about detail was very useful. ...more
Oct 03, 2009 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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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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