How Fiction Works by James Wood

December 11th, 2008 at 5:11 pm

How Fiction Works by James Wood

This slim volume is a most enjoyably practical and intelligent work. Wood has strong feelings about literary merit and the function of fiction and he writes about it in such an even, impassioned diction that you cannot help but nod in agreement and marvel at his simple explanations and examples. It is a truly special work, one that is both theoretical and pedagogical but also practical and useful.

Following my reading of How Fiction Works by James Wood, I will move on to How Language Works by David Crystal, and thusly be entirely prepared to write my novel. Indeed.

As Wood explains in How Fiction Works, “If the book has a larger argument, it is that fiction is both artifice and verisimilitude, and that there is nothing difficult in holding together these two possibilities.”

But it is Wood’s critique of “commercial realism” that I found most interesting and quite possibly the closest he gets to potential controversy (reviewing this book, I am trying to pick my words carefully, thus “closest” and “potential”).  Wood explains that, “Commercial realism has cornered the market, has become the most powerful brand in fiction. We must expect that this brand will be economically reproduced, over and over again.” James Patterson, Janet Evanovich. You’re on watch.

Wood concludes with a rousing call to arms for writers in which he pleas, “The writer has to act as if the available novelistic methods are continually about to turn into mere convention and so has to try to outwit that inevitable aging. The true writer, that free servant of life, is one who must always be acting as if life were a category beyond anything the novel had yet grasped; as if life itself were always on the verge of becoming conventional.”

My reading of this book comes at an interesting time; a time in which the publishing industry is suffering from an ongoing technological revolution that is challenging its long-held methods of sharing the “written” word with readers while also struggling with a recession.

But also, it is a time in which the publishing industry is doling out deals to the literary questionable: Sarah Palin, Joe the Plumber, and 9-year-old Alec Greven, author of the dating guide, “How to Talk to Girls.” (Please read Timothy Egan’s piece in the New York Times for a much more articulate observation on this phenomenon.)

Most of all, How Fiction Works reminded me why I read. I read because of everything explained, praised, and criticized in this book. People always ask me what I am reading. They never ask why I read so much.

But now I will have an answer if they ever do. In book form nonetheless. So I can read it.

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