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Notes from an Uncommon Reader

ISSUE:  Fall 2008

How Fiction Works, by James Wood. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, July 2008. $24

Books about the art and technique of fiction writing seem to fall into separate and distinct categories. Some are helpful, borderline inspiring, while others—the ones that equate the art of writing with the art of anything: real estate development, professional football, cooking—tend to confuse the issue. Achieving success in any of these occupations requires a boatload of brains, guts, and talent, but writing has its own peculiar demands and skill sets, as the many books available on the subject attest.

The cover of How Fiction Works

There’s the How To variety, useful in a fundamental, roll-up-your-sleeves, nuts-and-bolts way but thin when it comes to the deeper complications of how fiction works. Such books serve as Headquarters Central when we’re in a technical jam, aiding and abetting the becalmed writer with specific jump starts; they offer a way out when we’re stuck for a character or are in need of an engaging turn of phrase or surprising plot twist, when we need to ramp up a situation or setting. They wrest us from our (we hope temporary) stasis; they guide us to greener pastures, and we are grateful. They are to writer’s block what Excedrin is to the hangover. They are especially useful to the beginning writer, dishing out advice and guidance before To write or not to write becomes not so much the noble question as a source of deep despair. As a writer, and a teacher of writing, I’ve faced the roadblocks addressed in these books more than once, and they pop up regularly in the undergraduate classroom. But the questions and concerns only tend to deepen and become more tangled the longer the students write.

Other books offer the aforementioned hands-on advice while simultaneously lending moral support. They tend to bear down on our collective creativity, they massage our tattered souls. They are cheerleaders for the cause, invoking a sort of 12-step program to keep us from falling off the wagon into the dark maw of paralysis. They encourage the doubters to keep the faith, the faint of heart to keep on keeping on. Forget about le mot juste: just do it. (This is the kind of restorative advice that might have prompted Flannery O’Connor to famously write that, rather than running the risk of squelching promising young writers, MFA programs did not, in fact, squelch enough of them.)

Then there are the books about writing that go straight to the source, using as examples beautifully crafted or clunkily written paragraphs from the masters to make their points. What the authors of these books share is an unshakable passion for words and language, a reverential interest in the history of fiction insofar as one writer’s story rests—inevitably, one way or another—on the shoulders of an earlier writer’s story, and a deep appreciation of and affection for the aesthetic integrity of the writers themselves. Such books should be read by all serious readers and writers (especially student-writers), on the theory that a deeper understanding of how certain stories and novels are put together will give rise to new ways of achieving comparable depth and illumination in one’s own stories. One need not fully embrace the ideas offered to reap the rewards that their pondering yields.

How Fiction Works falls into this last category. In the same way that James Wood’s articles, appearing in such publications as the New Yorker, the Guardian, and the New Republic, document the artful placement of a well-turned phrase or the emotional resonance (or lack thereof) packed into the final pages of a particular novel or story, so this noted critic (himself a novelist) has written a book celebrating the enduring shape and scope of what he considers the best prose fiction. Artfully conceived and executed, energetically opinionated, and, at times, entertainingly idiosyncratic, the book is a tribute to serious writers and readers everywhere and, as with the best stories, inspires writers to run for paper and pen (or laptop) in order to participate in the honorable, challenging, tantalizing work that is fiction writing. In the meantime, on the other side of the equation, readers—partners in crime, willing audience—provide the open hearts and minds (and credit cards) necessary to cinch the deal. Wood doesn’t so much say what doesn’t work in fiction and in whose work it fails (though he targets a few, and devotes much the last chapter to the lasting legacy of realism) so much as honor the work of authors like Tolstoy, Flaubert, Proust, Austen, Chekhov, Joyce, James, Nabokov, to name a few. Return with me now to those thrilling books of yesteryear! he seems to say, to the groundbreaking masterpieces of the past that have paved the way so deliciously for our current reading pleasure, and for the great books yet to come. Bridging the gap from writers to readers are the critics, of whom Roland Barthes and Viktor Shklovsky receive the most ink and the intense scrutiny of Wood’s own critical eye.

Someone recently told me she no longer enjoys watching movies, that all she can see anymore are actors, artifice, painted scenery, the memorized line. The whole experience is ruined, willing suspension of disbelief no longer viable. She has lived many years and so has watched many movies and perhaps by now has recovered and all this is moot. But it is possible that books like How Fiction Works run the same risk regarding fiction writing: we end up seeing too much of the puppeteer and his strings, thereby losing the magic; our awareness of the intricacies and complexities of the creative process come at the expense of the deep pleasure that sitting alone with a good book brings. In the case of How Fiction Works, the opposite seems true. Through Wood’s close, mostly loving, frequently funny, occasionally dizzying examination, our reading experience is amplified and enriched. See that word? he whispers, tugging at our sleeve. How it shimmers here in this paragraph because of what the writer did with it ten pages earlier? He directs our attention to the small things. But there are big things, too: character, narrative distance, time management, point of view. Nietzsche. Ulysses. The “blue river of truth” (regarding which: show-offs—flash for its own sake—need not apply). “Style works to incarnate meaning,” he writes, and a “leap toward the counterintuitive . . . is the secret of powerful metaphor.” He holds writers to the highest standards: “There is a way in which even complex prose is quite simple—because of that mathematical finality by which a perfect sentence cannot admit of an infinite number of variations, cannot be extended without aesthetic blight: its perfection is the solution to its own puzzle; it could not be done better.” Check.

Divided into chapters (including “Narrating,” “Flaubert and the Rise of the Flaneur,” “Detail,” “Sympathy and Complexity,” “Truth, Convention, Realism”), the chapters divided into numbered sections (123 in all), the book has the feel of someone jotting random thoughts and notions of craft into a journal, helter-skelter, dollops of wisdom and sharp observation eventually coalescing into something deeper and more profound. Some remain as if unaltered: punchy little intellectual asides. At the top of every right-hand page is a header highlighting what lies beneath: “Significant Insignificance,” “Believing Too Little in Character,” “Mrs. Micawber,” “Dostoevsky’s Psychology,” “Changing Places with Another,” “Some Descriptions of Fire.” Entertainingly precise and evocative in and of themselves, these markers also help us locate particular passages once we’re pages and miles away. The episodic structure of the book reflects its vitality and accessibility; the casual layout is inviting, the friendly authorial tone reader- and intellect-friendly. Welcome aboard. No matter that he has us running to the dictionary to look up the precise meaning of vaguely familiar literary words such as hypostastis and hermeneut. When no accurate terminology exists, he coins the phrase himself: “characterological relativity” (good and bad embodied in a single character), or else resurrects an appropriately descriptive word from the past. “Thisness,” introduced by the medieval theologian Duns Scotus: “any detail that draws abstraction toward itself and seems to kill that abstraction with a puff of palpability, any detail that centers our attention with its concretion.” He cites unlikely but vivid examples of thisness in Henry IV, Part 1 (“knaves in Kendall green”), Madame Bovary (satin slippers worn to the great ball), Beatrix Potter’s The Tailor of Gloucester (“the cherry-colored twist” round a buttonhole). He then discusses irrelevant detail in all its subtle—sometimes enervating but also sometimes essential—aspects. Regarding a casually mentioned barometer in Flaubert’s story “A Simple Heart” (cited by Barthes as an example of an unnecessary detail), Wood writes: it is significant “precisely because it is dully typical. . . . You would never need a barometer. In fact, barometers, you might say, are very good barometers of a certain middling status: barometers are very good barometers of themselves! (That’s how they work, then.)” We share in Wood’s joy.

In the chapter titled “Flaubert and the Modern Narrative,” Wood synopsizes the history of the modern novel with clarity and panache, then brings us up to speed on newer literary trends; his knowledge of modern pop culture—its fads and flops—adds pizzazz to the theoretical conclusions he draws. He has a way of collapsing time, of making centuries-old literary technique seem fresh and relevant and hip. Where else do you find a critic writing a line about “round” and “flat” characters that begins with Shakespeare’s “self-theatricalizing” creations and ends with Ricky Gervais’s “superb pantomimic embarrassments”? Who compares Kramer’s routinely boisterous entrances in Seinfeld to the way one of Katherine Mansfield’s characters enters a room? Who speaks of Notes from Underground and September 11 in the same breath? “Dostoevsky’s analysis of ressentiment has turned out to have great prophetic relevance for the troubles we currently find ourselves in. Terrorism, clearly enough, is the triumph of resentment (sometimes justified); and Dostoevsky’s Russian revolutionaries and underground men are essentially terroristic.”

And as for irony, consider the childhood favorite, Make Way for Ducklings: “a broad ironic gap opens between Mr. Mallard and the reader (or author). We are not confused in the same way as Mr. Mallard; but we are also being made to inhabit Mr. Mallard’s confusion.” Just so.

Wood takes nothing for granted, opens all sorts of literary cans of worms in the interest of truth, progress, clarity. He seems to relish how, chapter by chapter, the deeper he goes, the greater the chance that provocative conclusions will surface, the way the best writers burrow their way into a story to find out what it’s about, walking the precarious line between bright possibility and their own central, driving vision. He respectfully takes on the old war horses, disses Forster’s dictum about flat characters: “flatness is more interesting than [Forster] makes it out to be . . . roundness is more complicated than he makes it out to be.” He defends mixed metaphors, claims they’ve gotten a bad rap. Two metaphors for the price of one! he seems to say; it’s mixed clichés, not metaphors, that give us no end of trouble. He returns again and again to Flaubert’s le mot juste and Madame Bovary—fiction’s gold standard of intellectual and artistic excellence; though, as he cites in the “Detail” chapter, “the Flaubertian legacy is a mixed blessing. Again, there is that strange burden of ‘chosenness’ we feel around Flaubert’s details, and the implication of that chosenness for the novelist’s characters—our sense that the selection of detail has become a poet’s obsessive excruciation rather than a novelist’s easy joy.” And he cuts a deadly swath through certain kinds of postmodern novels that, he asserts, call attention to themselves and their self-conscious, highly mannered artifice in ways that undermine their seriousness: “everyone is ultimately protected from real menace [in these books] because no one really exists. The massive turbines of the incessant story-making produce so much noise that no one can be heard.” Though, for some readers, being awash in this glittery, stylish superficiality has its rewards; whether we agree with him, Wood certainly gets our attention, and we are pushed to take another look at the books he relegates to the second tier.

Wood’s wit and occasional hilarious commentary are well-timed and sizzlingly accurate, making palatable some of his more complicated pronouncements. A warning regarding certain writers’ weakness for decorative, lyrical lines: “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.” And after an in-depth discussion on the use and placement of detail (“Bellow notices superbly”), he points out how too much of a good thing can end up “a necklace of noticings . . . that is sometimes an obstruction to seeing, not an aid.” Nabokov’s preoccupation with “good noticing” and his suspicion that Henry James was capable only of “weak blond prose,” prompts Wood to write: “James would probably argue that while we should indeed try to be the kind of writer on whom nothing is lost, we have no need to be the kind of writer on whom everything is found.” Perfect. And in the section on “Language” (header: “Rhythm and Music”), he illustrates why translating a line from Madame Bovary (“L’idée d’avoir engendré le délectait”) into English while trying to replicate the music of the original, rhythmic French is a bad idea. It ends up sounding “like bad hip-hop: ‘The notion of procreation was a delectation.’”

At times Wood wields such dazzling wordplay while excavating the power and pleasure of fiction that the verbal circling ends up resembling a Möbius strip—the turning in on itself; the overlapping, startling intersections; the changed and newly charged meaning and perspective. We find ourselves racing to keep up with the convoluted, intricate spirals and hoping we will make it through intact, our wits still about us. His digression about Virginia Woolf’s use of the word yellow in a line from The Waves—“The day waves yellow with all its crops”—is masterful and poetical. Near the end of the page: “And then that peculiar, apparently nonsensical ‘waves yellow’ (how can anything wave yellow?), conveys a sense that yellowness has so intensely taken over the day itself that it has taken over our verbs, too—yellowness has conquered our agency. How do we wave? We wave yellow. That is all we can do.” He ends the section: “Eight simple words evoke color, high summer, warm lethargy, ripeness,” and we cannot look at a field of corn in quite the same way again.

More often, though, he lets the writers themselves have the last word. “Progress!” he declares, after citing a passage from Swann’s Way where Proust has beautifully proved in a few lines the point Wood has been struggling to articulate and explain to us in the preceding three heady pages. Yes! Now we get it! In that moment, nothing could be clearer, or more interesting, or more satisfying; the delight he takes in turning us on to the finer, subtle pleasures of reading is contagious. When he mentions, in passing, a chemist named Camus (he is making a point about Proust’s habit of “tagging” his characters with leitmotifs), he muses in a footnote: “Am I the only reader addicted to the foolish pastime of amassing instances in which minor characters in books happen to have the names of writers?” Not anymore, Mr. Wood. I am now also afflicted with that condition.

Naturally Wood has his favorite writers, and, naturally, some of our favorites don’t make the grade. Most of his are European (British, Irish, a Frenchman or two, the Russians), and American, though there is little mention of stylists such as Hemingway or Faulkner or Fitzgerald, nor of Cheever, Flannery O’Connor, Welty, James Baldwin. The American writers he does cite—Updike, Roth, Cormac McCarthy, Salinger, Cather, his beloved Bellow—serve as gifted benchmarks for the points he raises, but it would be fascinating to hear what he has to say about the next, slightly younger generation of American fiction-writing men and women who were influenced by the aforementioned greats and who have proved that they, too, have staying power—to say nothing of the passel of richly and especially racially diverse, even younger writers nipping at their heels. Equally fascinating would be a detailed report on the next crop of British writers coming up who, of course, tend to pop up more frequently on Wood’s UK radar. And I am eager to see how he might apply his ideas and theories of realism, and surrealism, and everything in between, to fiction produced by writers in Africa, South America, the Middle and Far East. I was glad to read of Roberto Bolaño and V. S. Naipaul, but what about Haruki Murakami, Jorge Luis Borges, Chinua Achebe? Too elastic a subject, perhaps, to fit into one book, too broad—maybe another book altogether—but I would willingly follow his sharp, incisive eye as he mulls over how their stories work in relation to the ones he mentions here, and how their innovative approaches to subject matter, character, time and space, et cetera, stretch us and their stories beyond our standard (Western) logic and sensibility.

Finally, it is a cold hard fact that because of James Wood and his bountiful bookshelves and the prodigious intellect he levels on the tangled, wondrous process of fiction, I am no longer able to regard my own well-worn collection of books with any degree of satisfaction and lazy peace. It’s the opposite problem, in a way, of my friend and her movies. In the past month, on borrowed time, I have read (or reread) The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, as well as Macbeth and Hamlet, stories by the incomparable Chekhov, essays by Woolf, sections of Notes from Underground and Sentimental Education, passages in James, even L’histoire de Pierre Lapin, par Beatrix Potter (en français, good translation, no rhythm problems). War and Peace will be accompanying me to the beach. Full (re)immersion; there is no end in sight.

In the end, we’re left with stories. And this is a good, pure thing. “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. And so on and on.” Yes. Definitely. To be continued.


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