How Fiction Works

by James Wood

Paperback, 2009




Picador, (2009)


What makes a story a story? What is style? What's the connection between realism and real life? These are some of the questions James Wood answers in How Fiction Works, the first book-length essay by the preeminent critic of his generation. Ranging widely--from Homer to David Foster Wallace, from What Maisie Knew to Make Way for Ducklings--Wood takes the reader through the basic elements of the art, step by step.--From publisher description.

Media reviews

How Fiction Works is, or is intended to be, a specialist's guide for the nonspecialist, and with this aim in view it remains resolutely nontechnical and amply accommodating. Wood displays his usual genius for apt quotation, and as always his enthusiasm for those writers about whom he is enthusiastic is both convincing and endearing.

User reviews

LibraryThing member MeditationesMartini
Okay, I'm trying not to be too English-gradstudenty about this, and mostly I'm really happy about Wood's eccentric, impressionistic approach, in the old pre-theoretical turn, Woolfian or Forsterian tradition. He even puts the boot into Barthes in a gentle fashion, which is cute.

In general, there's a lot to like in this Wood's exploration of how some parts of fiction work that he obviously likes thinking about - free indirect speech, which he describes in a wonderfully clear ad useful way; the tension in realism between mere verisimilitude and the higher truth he calls "lifeness"; collecting the names of authors that are also the names of characters in works by other authors; an amazing untelegraphed Graham Greene parody. But if this sounds like a grab bag, it really is, and this book suffers - I'm NOT gonna say for lack of theory - but for not being anything more than an amiable, occasionally effete, meander.… (more)
LibraryThing member seidchen
While "How Fiction Works" does not claim to be an exhaustive survey of world fiction (it doesn’t confine itself to fiction written in English, or, for that matter, strictly to prose), this book does engage in an ongoing conversation about reading fiction as well as writing it, and Wood makes his contributions in an accessible format and a voice by turns authoritative and charmingly effusive. I am not nearly as enthralled as Wood is by his argument that modern narrative begins with Flaubert, but this assertion does provide a useful framing device for his discussions of a wide range of works. His main topics of narration, detail, character, language, dialogue, and classification of fiction are broken into brief segments (and are printed in surprisingly large type).The structural looseness of Wood’s admittedly “little volume” is surely influenced by his focus on “only the books I actually own—the books at hand in my study.”

This personal preference may account for some notable omissions. Foremost, to me, is Wood’s neglect of the short form. He does make frequent reference to Chekhov and attends briefly to Katherine Mansfield's stories, but he overlooks some masters of short fiction, notably Eudora Welty, William Trevor and Alice Munro (though Munro merits a passing mention). Wood’s helpful unpacking of E.M. Forster’s categorization of “round” and “flat” characters may have benefitted from a discussion of the rules that short stories establish as distinct from novels.

Similarly, while Wood ventures into the terrain of contemporary fiction—he gives a most satisfying critique of a sloppy passage from Updike’s Terrorist—he is relatively tied to the canon and, despite his many nods to Virginia Woolf, to male writers. Also in terms of scope, Wood turns, briefly and rather reluctantly, to the Pandora’s box of genre fiction in the final chapter “Truth, Convention, Realism,” principally to deride genres as “commercial realism” and, as such, an extension of commercial cinema. While I’m not a fan of either, it is difficult to accept as more than merely dismissive his claim that the “efficiency” of genres “takes what it needs from the much less efficient Flaubert or Isherwood, and throws away what made those writers truly alive.” Surely a more sophisticated inquiry into form and genre is merited (Wood having in the same section also introduced a comparison with formalist poetry in a similarly offhand manner), and I wonder what Wood makes of writers such as Michael Chabon who explicitly play with expectations established by genre. In this way, the book ends on odd footing, entangled in theory and rebutting “complaints against realism,” which may have more usefully framed more of his arguments throughout.

These charges, though, actually speak to Wood’s strength: this book invites conversation. Wood’s meander through his bookshelves enacts a love for the particularities of writing with which the reader can’t help but identify. You will find here no iron-clad linguistic or stylistic rules, but an astute analysis of how each choice suits a particular purpose—how the authorial voice clings to that of a character, then distances itself, to simultaneously encourage and withhold sympathy; how varying time signatures achieve a modern cinematic effect; how passive voice, far from an unconscious defect, reinforces the “comically gentle” nature of a character. Bearing out the title’s promise, Wood is at his best when engaged in close reading that demonstrates precisely how a passage works in a particular way.

Even Wood’s footnoted digressions on self-plagiarism and allegorical names, which can seem like self-important literary travelogues, have some inherent interest and are quickly outweighed by fascinating insights, such as (for the non-French speaker) his speculation that the French obsession with narrative and realism derives from the preterite, a past tense in French used, never in speech, but solely in writing.

Wood analyzes with remarkable clarity, and this lively book contains striking insights. I borrowed it from the library, but find myself wishing I owned it, to leave open the possibility of dipping into a few pages again while browsing through my own bookshelves.
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LibraryThing member stillatim
I confess, I came into this expecting to dislike it. But the first chapters were perfectly readable if derivative, and had enough small moments of insight that I was really keen to keep reading. Reviews such as Walter Kirn's in the NYT pushed me even further towards wanting to like Wood, since citing Huck Finn, On the Road and Jesus' Son as three 'masterpieces'* that Wood can't account for is a bit like suggesting that a book about fashion can't account for fashion masterpieces such as happy pants, pith helmets and edible underwear: maybe it can't, but that's probably for the best. And, pace Kirn, Wood can write--the fact that he doesn't feel the need to dip his penis in LSD prior to yawping about his own genius is, I think, a virtue.

And then it all falls to pieces, because Wood is not only propagandizing for his own view of what good fiction is--as any critic should do. He also pretends that all good literature is what he thinks good literature is. I'm fine with someone writing a book about how 'realism' is the central impulse behind writing fiction, and saying that that realism consists in 'visual noticing,' detail (visual and or intellectual), sympathy with others, and revealing to us the motives of characters without spelling it out to us. I disagree, but this is a decent statement of a reasonable position.

When you end up saying things like: "Shakespeare is essentially being a novelist" when Lady Macbeth and Macbeth have an argument onstage, or that Pope's 'Rape of the Lock' is "an early form of free indirect style," you can only do damage to those works or our understanding of them. The fact that Pope's work and Shakespeare's works are great *despite* not being realism suggests that fiction can be great without being what Wood considers realism. Claiming them for your argument is underhanded, like saying Karl Malone is a Laker great because he played one season for the Lakers; any sensible understanding of his career sees him as a Jazz great.

And it goes downhill from there. Wood considers plot to be essentially juvenile (his words, 149), he has nothing interesting to say about dialogue, and concludes that fiction is concerned mainly to accurately see "the way things are", that is, to be true to life. Therefore, any literature that tries mainly to do something else (e.g., tries to make you laugh, tries to make you cry, tries to suggest how things *should* be, complains about the way things are) falls outside his understanding of fiction, unless it's so great (Shakespeare; Pope; Kafka is about how it would feel to be an insect) that it just can't be doing anything other than what a few nineteenth and twentieth century novelists are trying to do.

Wood has written a polemic against the likes of Roland Barthes, without understanding the force of their argument--an argument that is, I agree, foolish and misguided. He quotes Barthes:

"The function of narrative is not to 'represent,' it is to constitute a spectacle still very enigmatic for us but in any case not of a mimetic order... 'what takes place' in narrative is, from the referential (reality) point of view literally nothing; 'what happens' is language alone, the adventure of language, the unceasing celebration of its coming."

Wood argues against

i) the obviously true claim that literature doesn't refer to anything. But, to take one of Wood's own examples: Isabel Archer does not exist, therefore the name Isabel Archer is not referring to some actually existing thing. Something else is going on. How is that anything other than a statement of fact?
ii) Barthes's opposition to conventionality. Despite the fact that there is no mention here of conventionality, Wood assumes that the argument must be something like 'because fiction uses conventions, it can't refer to reality.' And that that is an attack on conventions in literature.

His response is to say that everything is conventional, therefore Barthes is talking nonsense. But the the really obnoxious bit here is the completely unfounded claim that literature is just the celebration of the 'coming' of language, a human tool that Barthes (and many others) more or less deify. If that was true, there'd be no reason to read one thing rather than another. My review of this book would be just as celebratory of language's coming down from the heavens as would, say, Gulliver's Travels.

Barthes makes language a god, and Wood claims that there is one thing that authors are trying to do. They're both wrong. Authors try to do different things at different times, many of them try to do those things well, and you need to use different standards for different works. Barthes' work was an okay explanation and spirited defense of one thing that a couple of authors did in the sixties. Wood's book is a great explanation and defense of *one* thing that authors have done for the last 200 years. But to claim anything more for 'realism' than that is to do a tremendous disservice to the wonderful range of literature out there, everything from invective to epic, from Jane Austen to Javier Marias. You should read this book, so you'll know about the two extreme positions; and then you should read The Memoirs of Martinus Scriblerus, to remind yourself that both Barthes and Wood are dead wrong.


* I find it hard to think of any book the citation of which is more likely to make me viscerally disagree with or even hate you, than those three. One is a children's book, one is slumming drug-lit drivel by an otherwise talented author, and one is Americo-libertarian drivel that should come with a #firstworldproblems warning. And all of are considered masterpieces. It's too bizarre.
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LibraryThing member kvanuska
Sometimes I prefer to let the hype die away before I open a book. When How Fiction Works was released last summer, I saw more than a few snide references to this being the book all writers and wannabees would be reading. Though I don't always have the same take as Wood on books, I think his insights are invaluable and a necessary part of the discourse about fiction. Sadly, How Fiction Works feels all but forgotten now that winter has arrived. That makes me even happier that I saved it for my last book of 2008. It truly is a gem that I will put on the shelf next to Forster's Aspects of the Novel and Flannery O'Connor's Mystery and Manners and to which I will return whenever I'm "stuck" on a review, or on a tricky piece of editing of my own fiction. Though deceptively easy to read, his ideas provide quite a feast for the mind. Wood's discourses on narrating, detail, and most especially character were quite delicious. I've had great difficulty in the concept of flat and round characters since my MFA days and this concept kept coming up as a benchmark for deciding whether a piece of fiction worked or not. I, like Wood, have been bothered by Forster's slotting of characters into flat or round cubbies. Every time I've tried to pigeonhole a character in that way, they've escaped. Here's an excerpt from Wood. Reading it made me feel as though I've been invited in from the cold. Now, if only I could go back to one of those workshops armed with Wood and show those flat-rounders a thing or too.

"The novel is the great virtuoso of exceptionalism: it always wriggles out of the rules thrown around it. And the novelistic character is the very Houdini of that exceptionalism. There is no such thing as 'a novelistic character.' There are just thousands of different kinds of people, some round, some flat, some deep, some caricatures, some realistically evoked, some brushed in with the lightest of strokes. ... there are scores of fictional characters who are not fully or conventionally evoked who are also alive and vivid."
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LibraryThing member Mazidi
You don't have to know how a car works in order to enjoy driving it. Likewise, you don't have to know how novels work in order to enjoy reading them. Having said that, some people enjoy taking a peek under the hood. James Wood's "How Fiction Works" takes such a peek and explores the various systems that come together to make a novel: point of view, character development, selection of detail, and so on.

The book is not pedantic in tone although it teaches well. I found myself taking several pages of notes. Wood teaches point of view and detail by sharing short passages that illustrate his point. He shows us what the author is doing, and how he/she is doing it (or not quite). The section on character development was less specific, and I did not get a lot out of this section. The next section on the development of consciousness was superb, as Wood traces the development of consciousness through the tales of David, MacBeth and Raskolnikov.

At the back of a book is a bibliography of books Wood used in this work, taken from his own library. In reading over the list, I realized I had read a good number of the works. I would like to add most of the remaining books to my "to-read" list. You do not have to have read all of the books to understand the points he makes, he gives you enough of a passage to get the idea. However, it is an interesting reading list.

I did not always agree with Wood's analysis, and this is natural given the subjective nature of response to art. For example in talking of detail, Wood relates a scene from a Chekhov story in which, after making love to his mistress, a man eats a slice of watermelon for half an hour. Wood finds this detail perplexing and superfluous. I have not read that story (yet) but I think there are many possible things that Chekhov is saying here: that the man has a great appetite for both food and sex, or that the man took more care and attention devouring the flesh of the watermelon than he did making love to his woman.

The primary benefit of this book to a lover of fiction is an increased appreciation for the craft of writing. It's like taking a walk through an art museum with someone who has devoted their life to studying the techniques of great artists. They see on a different level, and their insights add depth and enjoyment to your experience.
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LibraryThing member V.V.Harding
Cast in the form of a handbook, the reader might expect some analysis of passages, if not entire works, that would justify the title. Instead it seems to be a random collection of observations on things James Wood does and doesn't like in a variety of works, mostly those he doesn't like, or likes for the wrong reasons.

But that can be explained by his failure to understand them. Misreading follows misreading, especially of American writers who naturally write with their own geographic and cultural nuances. Mr. Wood doesn't seem to have ever questioned that what he doesn't like might simply be something he's missing. Saul Bellow, the Canadian-born US writer, is a good case in point.

How Fiction Works is a short book, even shorter than the page count suggests in its small format and spaced-out entries. But it took a long time to read because so much of it had to be gone back over to confirm how great the failure to understand is. Lack of interest also kept me from it for a long time.

To add to the litany of discontents with the volume, the deckle-edged pages are hard to turn and to flip back through, and Mr. Wood glowingly cites Thomas Hardy an alarming number of times -- this can only be nostalgia for the books of one's youth.

Were I teaching a literary analysis class, How Fiction Works might be useful as an exercise book for students to hone their critical faculties on in evaluating Mr. Wood's, and the quotations are long enough (another thing that significantly shortens the actual work) for little to have to be checked in original locations.
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LibraryThing member Narboink
One the most enjoyable aspects of this wonderful little book is its brevity; a lesser writer would have written a book ten times as long. As a reader of fiction, I can attest that this is exactly the kind of thoughtful, heartfelt analysis that improves the experience of reading beyond measure. The simple, condensed and accessible style makes this a book that anyone who reads any type of fiction will doubtless appreciate.

Additionally, this edition (Picador, 2008) is one of the most elegantly designed books I've read in years. The layout, typeface, paper grade, etc., are all superb; everything about the book serves to calm and focus the reader on the ideas within. It's simply exceptional.
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LibraryThing member Nodosaurus
This book provides discusses fiction and provides an analysis of the tools to make it effective.

James Wood talks primarily about the point of view and voice. He does a comparative analysis of different styles and makes frequent and effective use of examples. Throughout the book, he talks about the tension between the narrator and the characters, how the author can use time, character development and conversation, and on. He never completely leaves a topic, as he will remind us in later sections of those earlier elements and how they are being used in conjunction with the current topics.

The book provides a great deal of information, more than can easily be absorbed in its reading. I feel to book had given me new tools for the analysis of literature, and whetted my appetite for more information.
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LibraryThing member whitewavedarling
I have mixed feelings about this one. It was worth my time since it gave me quite a few authors to look up and reminded me why I love some of my favorites, but there were also so many allusions to books that I sometimes felt left out of the Wood's arguments. At the same time, there was plenty of material to get me thinking about writing strategies that made the read worthwhile; my only complaint would be that sometimes his thoughts seemed painfully obvious, while at others they seemed somewhat undeveloped. It is extremely readable, though, and broken into small sections that make the book more easily digestable, along with making it a simple task to find chapter-bites or sound-bites on certain materials that you might want to take into a class or group discussion.

I'd recommend this to folks who are interested in writing fiction or expanding their literary horizons, as well as folks who are fans of the classics and literary fiction (as opposed to more acceptably mainstream). I also think it's more paletable in small doses and taken as breaks instead of in long sittings; I kept it on my desk at work for those ten or fifteen minute stretches when there's no sense in starting a large task, but no sense either in just sitting still for the duration; Wood's short short chapters make the book ideal for that sort of reading.
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LibraryThing member kjellika
This book was very interesting, and I've surely learnt a lot about reading fiction. There were some challenges reading it in English because of a rather difficult and spesial language to a Norwegian. Therefore I had some breaks on the way, but I'm glad I finished it. I think the most interesting chapters are:
Narrating, Character, Language, and Dialogue.
I recommend this book for all fiction readers, and it suits people who are interested in classics as well as those who love modern fiction.
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LibraryThing member carka
This book was drier than I expected...I thought it'd be more like Anna Quindlin's, more like a memoir of fiction. Instead it's more of a textbook on fiction writing ... the craft of writing fiction ... on such topics as realism versus convention, on dialogue, on point of view. I did learn a bit about writing, but since I'm not really pursuing a writing career, it wasn't as applicable to me. I did find myself marking certain pages to remember and was grabbed by certain quotes of his. One was a reflection that the books he dutifully marked as an undergrad, highlighting terms of importance, seem to have missed the mark. He says that most young people trying to be writers haven't read enough literature to be able to do so. I found that interesting, and perhaps is a main reason why I return to books years later. Sometimes I'm disappointed and other times, I gain an even deeper appreciation for the text, now that I have the added wisdom and experience to complement it.… (more)
LibraryThing member jburlinson
Does the typography on the dust cover mean something special? On the hardcover edition, the word works is in italics (although it's not specially designated on the title page or on the cover of the paperback edition, for that matter.) Is there a reason? At first, I thought this signified either (or both) of one or two things: (1) what are the intricate mechanisms that power a piece of fiction, the cogs, bolts, drive shafts, etc. and how do these components come together to get that piece of fiction whizzing along, or (2) how much, and what kind of, sheer effort goes into the production of fiction, the sweat, the tears, the agony, et cetera. Woods does spend quite a bit of time on the former (although not in any part icular systematic or, dreadful word, theoretical way) with just a few glances at the latter. What his preface, though, seems to say is that how can the reading (or writing, I suppose) of fiction "work" for us in making us a better person? Not necssarilfy a nicer person, but a more perceptive, thoughtful, imaginative person. If this is the case, his style and his strategy are perfectly adequate. Normally, when reading Wood's reviews in the New Yorker, I get the sense of having to penetrate writing that is the result of a student's attempt to translate a fuzzy original in some Serbain language into English. This book is much, much better than that. Not to beat around the bush any longer, I liked it pretty well.… (more)
LibraryThing member jasonlf
A useful comparison for this book is Aaron Copeland's classic What To Listen For in Music. Like that book, James Wood breaks down the different pieces of telling a fictional story from the narration to the dialogue to the characters. Unlike Copeland, however, this book is less about building up from first principals to a symphony and more about the at times idiosyncratic views of Woods. Although he's an excellent critic, his taste is somewhat different than mine -- running to the more carefully styled Flaubert over the more robust Dickens.

Substantial parts of this book are quite interesting and informative and help you, as the title says, understand "How fiction works." And Woods does a good job making it feel like a coherent book rather than a collection of essays by bringing back themes and examples over and over again and building on his previous analysis.

That said, large portions of it were considerably less interesting, which I suspect is more my fault than Wood's.
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LibraryThing member peterwall
Wood has strong ideas about the blend and interaction between the voices of authors and those of their fictional characters. He admires most the authors who can write fiction that follows its own conventions faithfully by signaling the different voices without breaking a self-imposed aesthetic. And aesthetics may be the most important factor in Wood's evaluation. We should be able to take written fiction as we find it and evaluate it on its own terms, but authors who fail to grasp and commit to a consistent aesthetic within a work make it difficult for readers to do that.

Readers whose chief interactions with a book are to determine whether they are "entertained," whether they "like the characters," and whether "the plot is believable" may see Wood as just another snobbish aesthete that revels in a lack of what they might call "clarity" ("Why should the meaning of the story be indeterminate or encoded? Why not just come out and say what happened?"). But those interested in plumbing the depths of language and all its most artful employments should find enlightenment, or at least enjoyment, with Wood and How Fiction Works. For the others, do try—it may tarnish your love for what Wood calls "commercial realism," but it will add more potential dimensions to your enjoyment of a text than perhaps you thought possible.
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LibraryThing member evanroskos
3.5 stars

Wood's text begins with very clear explanations and examples, but eventually falls into a few messy areas involving point of view that I found less promising. Flaubert is his main source of inspiration, which may cause some people to gripe, seeing as a text like Madam Bovary might seem outdated in relation to contemporary literature. Still, the fact that Flaubert is used as a signpost for the "modern" novel gives Wood a clear line of critique and keeps the book somewhat focused. Still, I was disappointed that the clarity of the opening sections (the book is handy in that each salient point and example is given a numbered section) disappeared once Wood got deeper into his analysis.… (more)
LibraryThing member debnance
I have the same criticism of this book as I have about recent books on education; Wood writes as if he is revealing scientific truth rather than quite changeable theory and opinion. And, I hate to tell him, but his book is nothing but one man’s opinions. It may be that all the heads are nodding along with Wood right now, but this, too, will pass. Wood writes beautifully himself and his thoughts are full of lovely metaphors and clever insights. But is this the truth revealed for all time? No. Just a nice book with lots of interesting twists and turns on other people’s writings.… (more)
LibraryThing member Karlus
I have just finished How Fiction Works and it now has pride of place among the several books I have owned and explored on the subject. In short, it is excellent.

Wood has a keen eye for the written word and an easy, readable style for explaining what is on the printed page and how it functions to enhance the readers appreciation and enjoyment of his reading. It seems to me that it is written from a readerly point of view, even though he claims that it is for writers as well as readers. The fous however is how the reader sees the narrative and is affected by it. He begins the book with a clear explanation of the syntax of 'free indirect discourse' that was all new to me, and he shows clear examples of its use and purposes in advancing the narrative of the story.

With that technical background out of the way, and at the ready for future and frequent use, he embarks on the more usual topics for explaining writing: the origins of modern narrative style; detail; character; consciousness; sympathy and complexity; language and dialogue; and finallly, truth and reality.

Wood acknowledges that "E. M. Forsters Aspects of The Novel, published in 1927, is canonical for good reason, but now seems imprecise" and one can see that Wood is out to have his own turn at improving that imprecision, while covering similar topics. His keen gaze is fixed on what he calls the old questions: "Is realism real? How do we define a successful metaphor? What is a character? When do we recognize a brilliant use of detail in fiction? What is a point of view and how does it work? What is imaginative sympathy? Why does fiction move us?"

He expresses the hope that "this book might be one that asks theoretical questions, but answers them practically." To my mind, he succeeds admirably with his sharp instead of diffuse answers to these pointed questions. His ultimate aim throughout is "to talk about the real" because the realism he sees as the objective of writing is ultimately what underlies other genres and "allows magical realism, hysterical realism, fantasy, science fiction, and even thrillers to exit."

To all questions he considers, he brings a clear eye and freshness of expression to make his points clear. A metaphor is an 'outburst of fiction' in the midst of fiction; an object is vividly described, not by achieving verisimilitude, but by expressing its 'thisness'; just as reality is achieved, again not by replica likeness, but by expressing its 'lifeness.' And finally what differentiates character is not roundness versus flatness, as in Forster's well-known terms, but subtlety -- Wood's term.

Reading this book is an exhilirating experience that brings the written page to a reader's attention in a different way than I have seen before. Moreover, one can carry its clearly explained insights over to one's own reading. In reading How Fiction Works, one will have learned from it and enahnced one's own future enjoyments, and I can think of no better recommendation. By all means, read the book!
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LibraryThing member jawalter
I tend to approach books like this with my expectations set too high, and while I'm trying to factor that into my evaluation, the sad truth is that I'm not taking all too terribly much away from this one. Wood clearly knows what he likes and has put a great deal of effort into determining exactly how that happens, but I think he may have been better off in exploring instances when fiction doesn't work (a la The Reader's Manifesto).

Sadly, I'm not terribly familiar with most of the literature he uses as examples, and while he does a good job of contextualizing the works, it's really impossible for him to overcome that failing on my part.

As for the actual book, I really disliked his choice to divide his writing into many short sections. It's a stupid thing to fixate on, but it left me with a staccato reading experience, and it seemed as though any time he started to get on a roll, it would be time to jump to a different topic.

Eh, it's not as bad as I'm making it seem; I just know that I won't remember any of it in a month or so.
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LibraryThing member porch_reader
I did not take any English classes in college - not a single one. I tested out of the two required composition classes and filled my schedule with math and accounting. (What was I thinking!) So I try to fill the gap by reading books that help me better understand good literature. Wood's book, How Fiction Works, definitely falls in that category. It reveals how authors use narration and detail, create characters, and write dialogue in ways that captivate and draw us in. Wood provides examples from a range of greats - James and Chekhov, Hardy and Tolstoy, Cather and Woolf, and so many more, and it was these examples that I enjoyed the most. Wood's analysis of these authors made me more aware of how they create their intended effects. Perhaps because I've been reading this book in short chunks, there were times when I found Wood's analysis a bit hard to follow. But overall, an interesting book.… (more)
LibraryThing member TheBookJunky
This is a literary paean to the joys of good fiction. It is a deceptively simple title. It is really a guided tour of various works, and Wood delights in explaining what is extraordinary about devices or passages used in these stories. Sometimes he also takes pains to describe what doesn't work, being famously disappointed with Updike's The Terrorist, for instance. The greatest pleasure was to admire Wood's own wonderful stylings and prose.… (more)
LibraryThing member nosajeel
A useful comparison for this book is Aaron Copeland's classic What To Listen For in Music. Like that book, James Wood breaks down the different pieces of telling a fictional story from the narration to the dialogue to the characters. Unlike Copeland, however, this book is less about building up from first principals to a symphony and more about the at times idiosyncratic views of Woods. Although he's an excellent critic, his taste is somewhat different than mine -- running to the more carefully styled Flaubert over the more robust Dickens.

Substantial parts of this book are quite interesting and informative and help you, as the title says, understand "How fiction works." And Woods does a good job making it feel like a coherent book rather than a collection of essays by bringing back themes and examples over and over again and building on his previous analysis.

That said, large portions of it were considerably less interesting, which I suspect is more my fault than Wood's.
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LibraryThing member wethewatched
A few good nuggets of advice in here on writing. However, the author can sometimes be a bit patronizing to read -- Wood tends to assume the reader has read all the authors he believes are the greats. For example, he often references character names without specifying which book they are from. He still gets the message across, but this practice reminded me why I don't like reading literary criticism.… (more)
LibraryThing member BCbookjunky
This is a literary paean to the joys of good fiction. It is a deceptively simple title. It is really a guided tour of various works, and Wood delights in explaining what is extraordinary about devices or passages used in these stories. Sometimes he also takes pains to describe what doesn't work, being famously disappointed with Updike's The Terrorist, for instance. The greatest pleasure was to admire Wood's own wonderful stylings and prose.… (more)
LibraryThing member chaosmogony
Great book. My earlier impressions were spot on. I don't terribly care to be a "literary" author, but the lessons on writing, via examination of how the best writers do things, is invaluable.

LibraryThing member megantron
Dissecting the modern novel. Really bummed me out seeing all the techniques laid out naked; this is how must magicians feel when their tricks are revealed. Still, it was a really interesting look at realism. Very eye-opening. I don't agree with everything Wood says, but I still have to sort out my thoughts. Update later?



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