Saturday, July 17, 2010

How Fiction Works by James Wood

Reviewed by Ingrid

Published: 2008

It's about: This book "asks theoretical questions but answers them practically--or to say it differently, asks a critic's questions and offers a writer's answers" (Introduction.) James Wood focuses on different aspects of fiction - narrative style, dialogue, detail, syntax, and more. He gives us classic and contemporary literary examples to help us differentiate between unique, beautiful writing and flat, generic writing.

I thought: This book was delightful to read. James Wood is extremely intelligent--a deep reader and thinker, and it comes through in this little book. Reading this book reminded me of all the great discussions in my high school and college literature classes, but packaged into little aphoristic paragraphs with numerical subheadings. I loved it.

But, I think it should be said that this book should not be taken as the definitive manual on how fiction works. It's good to read many books like this written by respected critics like James Wood--it introduces the reader to ways of how to better think and talk about literature.

Verdict: This one is going on the shelf.

Reading Recommendations: Read this if you love to learn about the inner workings of fiction, if you love new interpretations, if you want to learn how to be a better, more thorough reader.

Favorite excerpts: "... in life as in literature, we navigate via the stars of detail. We use detail to focus, to fix an impression, to recall. We snag on it ... Literature differs from life in that life is amorphously full of detail, and rarely directs us toward it, whereas literature teaches us to notice--to notice the way my mother, say, often wipes her lips just before kissing me; the drilling sound of a London cab when its diesel engine is flabbily idling; the way old leather jackets have white lines in them like the striations of fat in pieces of meat; the way fresh snow 'creaks' underfoot; the way a baby's arms are so fat that they seem tied with string ..."

"One way to tell slick genre prose from really interesting writing is to look, in the former case, for the absence of different registers. An efficient thriller will often be written in a style that is locked into place: the musical analogue of this might be a tune, proceeding in unison, the melody separated only by octave intervals, without any harmony in the middle. By contrast, rich and daring prose avails itself of harmony and dissonance by being able to move in and out of place."

"This tutoring is dialectical. Literature makes us better noticers of life; we get to practice on life itself; which in turn makes us better readers of detail in literature; which in turn makes us better readers of life."

* Check out some of James Wood's articles and reviews at the New Yorker website.