How Fiction Works
by James Wood
Picador 2009, 288 pages, $14.00 softcover
That title sounds just a little off. Who ever thinks of fiction “working”? Washing machines and computers work (sometimes), but fiction? Why would anyone write a book about how it works? The only books that usually describe how things work are manuals with step-by-step instructions. Is How Fiction Works therefore an instruction manual for writing fiction?
In his clever little book, James Wood does not give the ten simple steps to writing a great work of fiction. Instead, he explains the way in which fiction works on the reader. He shows how authorial tactics create the impression of reality, how we can or cannot relate to different characters, what it means for a character to be conscious, and many more details that create the fashioned worlds between the pages of a novel.
Those who write the best books about books are writers. By these I don’t mean scholarly works that make specific arguments about authors or literary eras. The books I mean are those in which writers show the ways in which they read. Writers can express best of all how novels are constructed. Virginia Woolf, in her short lecture A Room of One’s Own examines three of the great women writers of the nineteenth century: Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot. She notes that Austen’s sentence was peculiar to her while Eliot’s was an imitation of the “masculine sentence,” that Brontë’s feminist sentiments broke through the layers of her fiction and made the flow of her novels more uneven than those of the other two. It takes someone like Woolf, herself an expert in crafting a novel, to have sensibility necessary to perceive these details.
Wood, a professor of English and, perhaps more importantly, a writer for the New Yorker, gives us the same vision of detail. With an educated tone and a gentle, harmless pretentiousness, he cites author after author with a commanding familiarity. In a particularly delightful section, he distinguishes between “round” characters, “flat” characters, and those in between. The caricatures of Dickens are distinctively flat, he points out, while Dorothea Brooke and Raskolnikov are wells nearly without bottoms. M. Legrandin, in Proust, seems flat, but is subject to a profound change during the novel. These distinctions, which few readers think of while reading, appear clearly once Wood has lent us his eyes. He explores these details as a reader throughout the course of How Fiction Works.
That he is a reader and not necessarily a professor or expert or anything else is just his point. Fiction is universally accessible, but it can only work on a willing reader. That’s why Wood and Woolf and other writers like them are so much fun to read when they write about books. They are the perfect readers. Their sensitivities to the nuances of novelistic construction are perfectly tuned. Throughout the course of their books, therefore, we get to live inside their heads.
Yet all good things come to an end, and ultimately we are left at the end of books like these to be our own readers. It’s not always clear that we’re up to the task. But of course, we could always become better readers. Right?
There are, unfortunately, several reasons why readers like Wood are rare, even among the college-educated, well-read intelligentsia at whom Wood directs his book (he does not do this obviously, of course, but quietly and smoothly by means of his constant casual references to Dostoevsky, Flaubert, Nabokov, Henry James, etc., etc.). I cannot take a broad view, but I can speak from my personal experience at a place like, for instance, Princeton. The modern academic atmosphere is, for students, one of constant and frenetic action. Books are “work”: they are repositories of arguments and insights to made in precepts and papers and must therefore be read quickly and desperately before the due date. However beautiful a student may find a work of fiction, his or her senses will probably be dulled by the wee hours of the morning before class. I have gone through nights and books simultaneously in this way many times. Students at Princeton are certainly “well-read”: they’ve read a wide range of authors and can refer to a good number of them. But the conventional, frantic method of student reading removes a little of the care and pleasure with which Wood investigates fiction. For this kind of care and pleasure, a method of reading that is not rushed or worried – not to mention a student who does not feel the threat of class hanging over him or her like the sword of Damocles – is necessary.
This is not an exhortation to withdraw from your classes and immerse yourselves in fiction (well…no, I shouldn’t say that). But I know that I at least would benefit from ceasing to regard it as a threat. Students are the perfect readers. We have the resources and a temporary freedom from the responsibilities of everyday life, at least while we are on campus. It is on this sort of reader that fiction truly works. He or she does not only see various threads and topics in the book but the whole tapestry itself. He or she feels the creative power that this world, both its real and imagined parts, can wield. But the student must become immersed in the book rather than in the assignment. He or she must step outside the to-do list and into the pleasure of a book. As irresponsible as this sounds, it is necessary for reading, for enjoying, for living, even.
Wood begins one of his chapters with a very interesting story. In 2006, the chief of police in Neza, Mexico, approved of a decision to issue a required reading list to the police officers of the town, which included, to name two examples, Don Quixote and A Hundred Years of Solitude. The chief’s sentiments reflected a remarkable appreciation for the power of fiction; he claimed that reading would add to the officers’ worldly experience. How is that possible? How can little bundles of words on paper have this power? Through the workings of fiction, Wood answers. Through the incredible power of mimesis. It remains for us only to become the kind of reader who can perceive this power and embrace it in all its complexity and depth. Then, fiction can really do some serious work.