"How Fiction Works"
America's top literary critic shares the secrets of the books he loves.
In 1858, John Ruskin wrote his â€śAspects of Drawing,â€ť a 244-page primer on modern form. Rare among Victorian texts, â€śAspectsâ€ť eschewed grandiose analysis. Instead it stripped art to a series of straight lines, from object (reality) to art (reality translated and then illuminated) â€“ from â€śtechnique to the world.â€ť
This last clause belongs to James Wood, and he uses it to launch his own formal inquiry, How Fiction Works. Ruskin, Wood argues, had it right: he cast â€śa criticâ€™s eye over the business of creation.â€ť His authority came not â€śfrom his own technique as a draftsman ... but from what his eye has seen and how well, and his ability to transmit that vision into prose.â€ť
Wood, a staff writer at The New Yorker and former chief literary critic at the Guardian and The New Republic, is often called Americaâ€™s preeminent literary critic. In â€śHow Fiction Works,â€ť Wood attempts to do for literature what Ruskin did for drawing: distill the messy alchemy of art into a single, coherent system.
And for the most part â€“ through 10 chapters, stacked loosely atop one other, and spilling over at the margins with erudition â€“ he succeeds, spectacularly.
Drawing on his own vast fund of reading, Wood seeks out those moments when novelists come closest to achieving â€ślifenessâ€ť â€“ or at least â€śthe nearest thing to lifeâ€ť â€“ in their art. One of the great pleasures in reading â€śHow Fiction Worksâ€ť comes from savoring the carefully selected passages that Wood chooses to illustrate his points.
Among these: Henry James letting his adolescent narrator unconsciously parrot the adults around her in â€śWhat Maisie Knewâ€ť (â€śIt was on account of these things that mamma got [the governess] for such low pay, really for nothing...â€ť; Chekhov describing an adulterer silently eating a melon for a half hour after an assignation; and Tolstoy noting that a husbandâ€™s ears suddenly look different to a wife enamoured of another man in â€śAnna Karenina.â€ť
Wood uses this wonderful romp through some telling moments in Western literature to talk about some of the basic building blocks of the novel: narration, detail, character, metaphor, and style.
If this sounds as if this could all get a bit esoteric, well, best to brace yourself. Wood, who is also a lecturer at Harvard, has in many ways written an academic text, one that traffics in established literary theory and history. (Some section titles, taken at random: â€śTragic Dilemmas in the Novelâ€ť; â€śWordsworth in Londonâ€ť; â€śFlaubert and Selection.â€ť)
â€śHow Fiction Worksâ€ť requires at least a familiarity with the â€śmajorâ€ť Western texts â€“ an ability to differentiate between Stendhal and Flaubert, Dafoe and James, Dostoevsky and Nabokov. Here is Wood, for instance, on
"The Brothers Karamazov" â€śCrime and Punishmentâ€ť: â€śDostoevskian character has at least three layers. On the top layer is the announced motive: Raskolnikov, say, proposes several justifications for his murder of the old woman. The second layer involves unconscious motivation, those strange inversions wherein love turns into hate and guilt expresses itself as poisonous, sickly love.â€ť
An analysis that challenges
Everything in Woodâ€™s sweeping study is layered â€“ presented, dissected, and then collapsed into a wider narrative. The prose is knotty, and unapologetically complex.
There are, to be sure, more accessible books on fiction. Among them: Joyce Carol Oatesâ€™s â€śThe Faith of a Writer: Life, Craft, Art,â€ť and David Lodgeâ€™s â€śThe Art of Fiction,â€ť which collects essays from the Guardian and The Washington Post and is deservedly popular among aspiring novelists.
But Wood is aiming for something bolder in â€śHow Fiction Works.â€ť Like E.M. Forster in â€śAspects of the Novelâ€ť or Nabokov in â€śLectures on Literature,â€ť he is laying out nothing less than a systemic analysis of the novel â€“ that art form which he calls the â€śgreat virtuoso of exceptionalism,â€ť always wriggling â€śout of the rules thrown around it.â€ť
The messy business of characterization
What really fascinates Wood â€“ and what makes the book hum â€“ is the messy business of characterization: the â€śthousands of different kinds of people, some round, some flat, some deep, some caricatures, some realistically evoked, some brushed in with the lightest of strokes.â€ť
Itâ€™s these characters, Wood argues, that are the â€śHoudini[s] of that exceptionalism.â€ť
And itâ€™s on these characters that Wood spends most of his time. He examines and refines the â€śFlaneurâ€ť theory of noticing, first mastered by Flaubert and subsequently adopted by nearly every modern novelist, where a character does nothing at all, yet does everything at once, soaking in the world around him in a series of Technicolor snapshots.
He writes about â€śThe Importance of Noticingâ€ť in one section and then the â€śPropaganda of Noticingâ€ť in another. In a particularly expert digression, titled â€śCharacterological Relativity,â€ť he traces the novel to its origins â€śin a secular response to the religious lives and biographies of saints and holy men, and in the tradition inaugurated by the Greek writer Theophrastus.â€ť
Of course, at the risk of being reductive, what Wood is really expressing is his own sort of love for the novelistic form, which seems to have driven not only his career, but also his intellectual life. In the final pages of â€śHow Fiction Works,â€ť after the rhetorical fireworks have subsided, Wood writes that, â€ś[I]n our own reading lives, every day, we come across that blue river of truth, curling somewhere; we encounter scenes and moments and perfectly placed words in fiction and poetry ... which strike us with their truth, which move and sustain us, which shake habitâ€™s house to its foundations.â€ť
The achievement of â€śHow Fiction Worksâ€ť is to allow Woodâ€™s â€śblue riverâ€ť to spill outward from the text, until the writerâ€™s â€śbusiness of creationâ€ť has become our own.
Matt Shaer is a Monitor staff writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y.