Blog Post · Book Review

How Fiction Works

How Fiction Works

By James Wood

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York

265 pages, $24.00


This is the best book on fiction I have read since Mystery and Manners by Flannery O’Connor. Wood, a staff writer for The New Yorker and visiting lecturer at Harvard, does not share O’Connor’s Christian faith, but he does have the same passion and acumen for fiction as she, and writes from the same Jamesian-Flaubertian tradition that she partly shared.

His book, then, for me, lacks a religious dimension that hers took for granted, yet does not ignore it. In writing about Dostoyevsky, for instance, Wood says the Russian writer developed the aspect of character Diderot introduced in Rameau’s Nephew, what Nietzsche called ressentiment, and that the deepest motive for this psychological resentment “is beyond explanation and can only be understood religiously. These characters act like this because they want to be known; even if they are unaware of it, they want to reveal their baseness; they want to confess.”

This quote acknowledges religion, the role of faith in life, but only within the provinces of fiction, that is, of earthly life. In a sense, for Wood, fiction is as close as we can get to true religion. It seems to me that Wood, who is an atheist, has made art, fiction in particular, his religion, and this is shown in how important he considers fiction to be, especially in the domain of character. I agree up to a point; if I were an atheist, I would do the same as he. You could say that Wood says the kingdom of God is within you, but only within you.

This is readily apparent in the chapter entitled, “A Brief History of Consciousness,” in which Wood shows how consciousness in the novel developed from the outward dramatic milieu of Don Quixote to the inner psychological drama of the modern novel as seen in Dostoyevsky and Hamsun. Other chapters explore point of view, Flaubert (two chapters on his work), the use of detail, character, diction, sympathy and complexity (which is akin to C. S. Lewis’s idea that reading gives us an “enlargement of our being”),  dialogue, and truth.

Thus Wood’s book fits into the category of works that include Forster’s Aspects of the Novel and Milan Kundera’s books on the art of the novel—these are the ones Wood mentions, but he leaves out others—I’m not sure why–such as Percy Lubbock’s The Craft of Fiction (which his book resembles philosophically, and even in its layout and font) and The Structure of the Novel by Edwin Muir.

Wood grapples subtly and effectively with the arguments of Barthes and company that fiction does not refer to the real world and that fiction is about language itself. He understands what Barthes and writers like Rick Moody (who says that realism needs a “kick in the ass”) are saying, but he shows that they go too far and replace the realism they attack with their own version of realism with its own conventions.

Wood prefers the outlook of the Victorian novelist, George Eliot, who wrote, “Art is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot.” About this Wood comments, “The great Victorian realist is being precise here: art is not life itself, art is always an artifice, is always mimesis—but art is the nearest thing to life.”

Artifice includes convention, Wood points out, and convention is always dying, so the writer must struggle to find new routes to making art that sees “the way things are.” Another way of saying this is that the writer must care. The book begins with an epigram by Henry James: “There is only one recipe—to care a great deal for the cookery.”

This idea also informs one of the best passages in the book, in the chapter on character: “So the vitality of literary character has less to do with dramatic action, novelistic coherence, and even plain plausibility—let alone likeability—than with a larger philosophical or metaphysical sense, our awareness that a character’s actions are deeply important, that something profound is at stake, with the author brooding over the face of that character like God over the face of the waters.”

In other words, fiction matters desperately because we matter. Why we matter is a thing taken for granted by Wood. Perhaps, he would say, we matter because we are all we have. As for God, there is the story of Rodin telling Rilke that he read the third chapter of the Imitation and everywhere it read “Jesus,” he replaced it with “sculpture,” and this worked just fine for him. I assume it works just as well for Wood.

James Wood, in How Fiction Works, shows the depths of his passionate caring for fiction in all its aspects. He undercuts the skeptics of fiction with their own skepticism and carefully builds a case for why fiction matters. Those who love to read fiction and those who strive to write fiction worth reading won’t be disappointed.


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