Thursday, 19 January 2012

James Wood, How Fiction Works

James Wood is one of the liveliest critics around. His essays always give a sense that the whole business of reading closely really matters, as part of our experience of life, not simply as an academic exercise. Most of his writing takes the form of essays (several are collected in The Irresponsible Self and The Broken Estate).  How Fiction Works is a book-length study of the techniques we find in writers from Fielding to David Foster Wallace. It really is about how good novels and stories work, what makes them go, what makes them work their magic on us. We strat with a lesson on narrative, and in particular the uses of the free indirect style, where we often float between the minds of the narrator and the characters (Consider: 'Sir Richard listened patiently to the scruffy clerk's explanation' - here we are looking at Sir Richard from the outside, shown the action by the third-person narrator, yet at the same time we are also inside Sir Richard's mind, as he congratulates himself on his patience and finds the clerk scruffy' - it's a simple trick, yet marvellous effects come from it). There are chapters on other aspects of the fiction-writer's trade such as characterization, imagery, dialogue. It is all refreshingly undidactic and reads like an enthusiastic reader sharing his findings. Woods is averse to dogmas like show-don't-tell and 'characters should be rounded' and well equipped to point out how great writers regularly break these notional  'rules'. In conclusion he considers the claim that the realist novel is outmoded in the modern age, and feels this is mistaken, or pedantically over-insistent. In any case, he argues, serious writing is not about the construction of reality but about the search for truth. How Fiction Works is constructed in short, fragmentary sections - each one an observation, usually based on a particular passage. (And the passages are nicely complete in themselves: there is no need to have read all the novels he cites to follow the discussion.) How Fiction Works has a personal style and taste, which makes it very readable. It is unblemished by jargon, opinionated, lively, not stifled by reverence and altogether highly recommended to anyone studying literature, or simply anyone who likes reading literary novels and wants to read them better (let us assume that anyone in the first of these categories also belongs to the second).