James Wood on 'How Fiction Works'

James Wood's new book, "How Fiction Works," is as knowing as you'd expect from one of the best critics alive—more knowing than that, in fact—but that may not always please writers, since Wood also knows how fiction doesn't work. I guess I'd always thought, for instance, that maybe it wasn't too lame to kick off a novel or story with a description of a photograph. Wood not only identifies this device, correctly, as a cliché marking the writer as a greenhorn, but also cooks up a parody just plausible enough to seduce you before stinging: "My mother is squinting in the fierce sunlight and holding, for some reason, a dead pheasant. She is dressed in old-fashioned lace-up boots, and white gloves. She looks absolutely miserable. My father, on the other hand …" What's wrong with this, besides its triteness? Its laziness. As Wood writes: "It is getting these people out of the aspic of arrest and mobilized in a scene that is hard."

Wood brings this degree of attention and rigor to his compressed discussions—but rich in specifics—of narration, character, dialogue, language (including rhythm, repetition, metaphor and levels of diction), the use of detail and the ever-recurring debate over literary realism. All this in 250 pages of geriatrically large type. This is not a how-to-write book—though I think every fiction writer ought to read it, ideally before sitting down at the computer next time—but an analytic appreciation of fiction in action, in the tradition of Henry James's "The Art of Fiction" or E. M. Forster's "Aspects of the Novel" or, more recently, Francine Prose's "Reading Like a Writer." Wood draws his examples from writers as varied as Jane Austen and Philip Roth, Flaubert and David Foster Wallace; in a discussion of irony, he enlists both James's "What Maisie Knew" and Robert McCloskey's "Make Way for Ducklings." He's a great appreciator. In a sex scene from Roth's "Sabbath's Theater," a single, long sentence is "an amazingly blasphemous mélange" of dictions, from high to "very low." In a negotiation scene between two poor men in V. S. Naipaul's "A House for Mr. Biswas," "the dance of pride is so delicately done." But occasionally an artistic lapse serves his purpose better, as in his detailed autopsy of a passage from John Updike's 2006 novel "Terrorist." Cause of death? Updike's "awkward alienation from his character."

Though Wood isn't one of those reflexive and ostentatious contrarians—he might be better known if he were—he leaves no truism unexamined. So-called omniscient narration, he argues, is "almost impossible": narrative about a character tends to "take on his or her way of thinking and speaking." And first-person narration—even by such a serial prevaricator as Nabokov's Humbert Humbert—"is generally more reliable than unreliable." Similarly, Forster's distinction between "round" and "flat" characters, an article of faith in the Church of Verisimilitude, falls apart under Wood's interrogation. "If by flatness we mean a character … who serves to illuminate an essential human characteristic, then many of the most interesting characters are flat." And "roundness," he continues, "is impossible in fiction, because fictional characters, while very alive in their way, are not the same as real people." Don't get him started on the notion that characters ought to be folks we can cozy up to. "A glance at the thousands of 'reader reviews' on Amazon.com, with their complaints about 'dislikable characters,' confirms a contagion of moralizing niceness'." And he thinks postmodernists who attack "realism" as conventional are missing the point: the issue is "truth" rather than verisimilitude. "Fiction does not ask us to believe things (in the philosophical sense) but to imagine them (in the artistic sense)."

You may not agree with all of Wood's judgments—though you can probably assume he's smarter than you. I'm not in love with any of the descriptions of fire he cites as "tremendously successful": a "rushing bouquet of flames" (D. H. Lawrence), "a scarlet handful of fire" (Thomas Hardy), "blue flames fluttered like a school of fish" (Saul Bellow) or "cooking fires wagged" (Norman Rush). And come to think of it, is Wood even right about starting out by describing a photograph? What about the beginning of Hemingway's marvelous short story "Soldier's Home"? "Krebs went to the war from a Methodist college in Kansas. There is a picture which shows him among his fraternity brothers, all of them wearing exactly the same height and style collar. He enlisted in the Marines in 1917 and did not return to the United States until the second division returned from the Rhine in the summer of 1919.

"There is a picture which shows him on the Rhine with two German girls and another corporal. Krebs and the corporal look too big for their uniforms. The German girls are not beautiful. The Rhine does not show in the picture."

Well, Wood might not agree that this story's so marvelous—he doesn't cite Hemingway in his book one way or the other. But he'd surely agree that when fiction works, on the readers for whom it works, it works without rules or formula. His epigraph comes from Henry James—whose fiction I don't think is so marvelous: "There is only one recipe—to care a great deal for the cookery." The intensity and the intelligence of Wood's caring make this a book to be grateful for, even when—maybe especially when—he makes you feel like a greenhorn.

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