HOW FICTION WORKS
By James Wood
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 266 pp., $24
"How Fiction Works" is an audacious title, not only because explaining the mechanisms of fiction is a large task but also because fiction doesn't seem to be working as well as it used to, if you take the decline in book sales as evidence. But if any contemporary critic is up to the task, it's James Wood, who has read more and better than the rest of us. Wood, who reviews for the New Yorker, has also published a novel, "The Book Against God," so he knows first-hand about the making of fiction.
This is anything but a densely theoretical book. Wood doesn't waste time on defining the term "fiction." He assumes that we know it when we see it. Instead, what he gives us is a demonstration of smart reading, an exploration of works of fiction by a sensibility finely attuned to both the words on the page and the tricks an author plays in an effort to make it real.
"Making it real" is what the book is about; as he tells us at the outset, "the real … is at the bottom of my inquiries." Fiction, he says, "floats a rival reality." It "does not ask us to believe things (in a philosophical sense) but to imagine them (in an artistic sense)."
To this end, he discusses the usual elements of fiction -- point of view, description, style, characterization, dialogue. The only thing he doesn't spend much time talking about is plot -- he even refers to "the mindlessness of suspense" and "the essential juvenility of plot." Plot matters for him only as an outgrowth of the characters -- the dilemmas they face, the decisions they make, the lessons they learn, the flaws that undo them.
Most of the burden of his argument is focused on "free indirect style" -- what some of us usually refer to as limited third-person narrative. For Wood, it most effectively exploits the essential tension of fiction, the relationship of author and character: "Thanks to free indirect style, we see things through the character's eyes and language but also through the author's eyes and language. We inhabit omniscience and partiality at once."
He dazzles us by citing examples of free indirect style not only from its master, Gustave Flaubert, but also from Robert McCloskey's children's book, "Make Way for Ducklings." And he shows us how violating point of view and voice can be fatal to the narrative balance between character and author with a devastating example from John Updike's novel "Terrorist," in which Updike, writing from the character's point of view, inserts a detail with significance for the author but one that would probably not occur to the character. The passage in Updike’s book, he tells us, "is an example of aestheticism (the author gets in the way) ... which is at bottom the strenuous display of style."
Eventually, Wood gets around to E.M. Forster's famous distinction in "Aspects of the Novel" between "flat" and "round" characters. He comments that "Forster is genially snobbish about flat characters, and wants to demote them, reserving the highest category for rounder, or fuller characters." But Wood finds that "the very idea of 'roundness' in characterization ... tyrannizes us -- readers, novelists, critics -- with an impossible ideal," and in a footnote (some of the best stuff in Wood's book is in the footnotes) tentatively proposes a distinction between transparent characters and opaque ones. The opaque ones are characters like Hamlet and Iago, whose motivation retains a certain mystery.
Of course, Wood is largely concerned with what we sometimes call "literary" fiction -- as distinguished from "popular" or "commercial" fiction. In constantly striving to make it new, to dodge clichés, literary fiction leaves behind a clutter of old conventions that linger in popular fiction. "Commercial realism has cornered the market, has become the most powerful brand in fiction,” Wood says. “The efficiency of the thriller genre takes just what it needs from the much less efficient Flaubert or Isherwood, and throws away what made those writers truly alive." Even the best commercial fiction, Wood posits, citing a passage from John le Carré's "Smiley's People," "is a clever coffin of dead conventions."
But the chief joy of Wood's book is its abundance of shrewd close readings of such writers as Austen, Flaubert, James, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Kafka, Woolf, Nabokov, Bellow, Roth and Updike -- among many others. (The bibliography at the book’s end is a deliciously enticing reading list, if you’re looking for one.) He helps us understand how they achieve (and sometimes fail to achieve) what he calls "lifeness: life on the page, life brought to different life by the highest artistry."
"How Fiction Works" is, in essence, a master class in reading.