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How Fiction Works

How Fiction Works

Author:James Wood
Release Date:2008
Publisher:Farrar, Straus, and Giroux

By Eli Perlow | Posted 10/1/2008

How Fiction Works draws from a pantheon of literature past and present, leaving you unsure how to untangle literary work from the living experience--an enlightening feeling. While disclosing sublime writing tools, long-celebrated book critic James Wood digresses into lucid meditations on the nature of language, character, and consciousness. Upending E.M. Forster's constrained understanding of a novel's formula, he opines that truthiness is far more real than the truth: "fiction is both artifice and verisimilitude . . . there is nothing difficult in holding together these two possibilities."

Wood lauds free indirect speech, illustrating how writing from this sometimes deceivingly simplistic point of view (lying somewhere between the first and third person) intimately connects us to a story's characters. This narrative voice creates a continuum with the characters on one end and the author on the other--they inform us as we move between them in a feedback loop. Books using this approach have an almost cinematic effect, elevating the impression of a two-dimensional character into that of a full-bodied being. Wood quotes from the opening lines of such a work--Christopher Isherwood's Goodbye To Berlin--which self-referentially alludes to this framework early on: "I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair."

Wood repeatedly shows how less is more--books need not differ from the paintings that Julie Andrew's posse inhabits in Mary Poppins. They need merely hook us into their world and let us interact with them on personal terms.

Exploring this technique, Wood deconstructs an orgasmic sequence from Philip Roth's Sabbath's Theater, arguing that a writer must mash up "high diction" with low if readers are to relinquish their guard and fall into the story. Later, he explains why using the mixed metaphor can be a sound writing idea--"often the leap toward the counterintuitive, toward the very opposite of the thing you are trying to compare, is the secret of powerful metaphor"--as long as it is not a combination of clichés, as in "out of a sea of despair, he pulled forth a plum."

Effective details also, at times, purposely distract from the pertinent goings-on of the prose, as the contrast it casts serves to strengthen the story. He cites George Orwell's observation that a "condemned man is still thinking about keeping his shoes clean," in his short story "A Hanging," as an example of this concept.

By delivering a keen study of the literary process, Wood does so much more; he teaches the reader what it means to be human, with all the virtues and flaws that are a part of the human condition. For Wood, fiction's house "has many windows," and, luckily, he's here to guide us through it.

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