Mini book reviews of all our yesterdays.
How Fiction Works by James Wood (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2008). In a world where most of us have lots more time to read reviews of literary fiction than to read literary fiction, James Wood has been a delight for years from his posts at New Republic and New Yorker. Not because I know I can trust him as a guide to what I should be reading (I read far, far too little contemporary fiction to know) but because his own voice and character tend to be as compelling and interesting as any fictional voice. And hey, unlike characters in fiction, I can be sure he’s talking about something I'm interested in: books and literature.
His new book-length essay of musings on questions of voice, style, character, and realism in fiction builds no impregnable theoretical edifice. It is more a random, though purposeful, selection of thoughts and observations, and all the more readable, graspable, and memorable for that.
He isn’t just stumbling about; the book is structured by attempts to explain different varieties of voice and narration. He starts off with a long explanation and celebration of the “free indirect” style, the standard for modern fiction, in which “we see things through the character’s eyes and language but also through the author’s eyes and language”—Wood also calls it merely “authorial irony,” and mostly credits Flaubert for it.
The book is full of examples of good writers doing things right, and even more amusing, good writers doing things wrong (like the recently late John Updike in his Terrorist). Great stabby apercus abound, such as “David Foster Wallace is very good at becoming the whole of boredom” and “We must proceed on the assumption that almost all prose popularly acclaimed as beautiful…is nothing of the sort.”
Wood is smart and skeptical about one of my own bugaboos about modern literature: the unconvincing metaphor or simile, and the character who seems to notice or think things it's hard to believe they would actually notice or think; Wood helped me see in many cases that some expressions I think are merely writers trying o-so-hard to be writerly actually have value for the attentive reader. Then again, he will occasionally drop in his own that strike me as showoffy and unnecessary (“details…are pushed at us, as if by the croupier’s stick, in one single heap.” Not quite sure why the croupier had to get in our faces, there.) And Wood is also delightfully (to me, at least) on my side when it comes to choking on the mad profusion and abundance of specific details that many modern writers indulge in. (“In Flaubert and his successors we have the sense that the ideal of writing is a procession of strung details, a necklace of noticings, and that this is sometimes an obstruction to seeing, not an aid.”)
His long disquisition on character in fiction is as amusingly inconclusive as our understanding of character in fiction has to be, though his defense of mere subtlety of detail that lets us into a character as opposed to the impossible quest for “roundness” strikes me as getting to something essential and real.
I find Wood’s suspicion of plot itself suspicious; he throws out phrases like “the essential juvenility of plot” without sufficient defense of his offense. And not even Wood’s sympathetic perspicacity is enough to make me think I’ll ever be an enthusiast of Saul Bellow’s sentences. But the pleasure of a book like this is not in merely being bowled over by the author’s insights; it’s in letting them rub up against your own previous thoughts, conclusions, and prejudices and seeing if any sparks can thus be created. I can’t imagine anyone who regularly reads fiction for pleasure not having some such pleasing sparks flash in reading this book.