Kirkus Reviews QR Code
HOW FICTION WORKS by James Wood Kirkus Star


by James Wood

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-374-17340-1
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

New Yorker staff writer Wood (Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel, 2004, etc.) channels E.M. Forster’s classic Aspects of the Novel in a book-length analysis of the techniques that make fiction “both artifice and verisimilitude.”

Adopting an enthusiast’s approach, the author examines classic and contemporary aesthetic choices, citing the works of several dozen favorite authors, including precursors of fiction (Homer, Shakespeare, Cervantes), consensus masters (Flaubert, Tolstoy, Austen, Henry James, Chekhov, Stendhal) and eminences still practicing (V.S. Naipaul, J.M. Coetzee, José Saramago, Ian McEwan). Wood occasionally gushes, as in his consideration of “free indirect style … [which allows us to] see things though …the character’s eyes and language but also through the author’s.” But he quickly composes himself, rebuking John Updike and Saul Bellow for allowing authorial mind-sets to infiltrate a character’s habits of thinking and speaking (in the former’s Terrorist and the latter’s Seize the Day). There follows a superb discussion of “Real and Literary Detail,” emphasizing “the moment when a single detail has suddenly enabled us to see a character’s thinking.” The centrality of characterization in the modern novel is linked to the interest of certain masters (notably Dostoevsky) in making psychological complexity dramatically interesting. In a parallel argument, Wood examines how rhythm and momentum are established through the skillful manipulation of simple everyday language (as in the best of D.H. Lawrence). Wood’s unalloyed delight in the achievements of the finest writers of fiction leads him to a closely reasoned and impassioned rejection of the ignorant canard claiming that realistic fiction is dead.

Highly stimulating stuff—if it doesn’t make you hug your bookcase gratefully, you’re probably an incorrigible “formalist-cum-structuralist.”