Skip to content

Week 1, the first book: How Fiction Works

Book: How Fiction Works, by James Wood

Grade: C

Why: Too much micro-analysis, too little attention to the whole; too much scorn for the “popular,” too much delight in his own prose (“Nearly all of Muriel Spark’s novels are fiercely composed and devoutly starved”), way too much jargon (“Characterological relativity”? Really?).

Wood is intensely interested in small things. In use of detail, in single phrases and sentences, in rhythm and vocabulary. Which is fine, and I gave the book a C (“average,” or was before the days of grade inflation) because he makes useful observations about the construction of prose. His section on “The Rise of Detail” was particularly good, and I plan on rereading and making use of it.

But he pays no attention to the entire novel. He spends page after page after page rhapsodising about single sentences and details. Saul Bellow’s description of flying, he enthuses, tells the reader exactly what flying feels like. “And yet until this moment one did not have these words to fit this feeling. Until this moment, one was comparatively inarticulate; until this moment, one had been blandly inhabiting a deprived eloquence.” (Yep, that’s been my entire experience of flying up to this point. I blandly inhabit a deprived eloquence.) What the entire novel does, why we might read it, what effect the whole sweep of it might have on us, and (most important for a book called How Fiction Works) how the writer constructed it–all of these things are ignored.

He’s also a snob. He loathes something he calls “commercial realism,” a style which “lays down a grammar of intelligent, stable, transparent storytelling,” and instead praises the obscure, the high, and the literary. Plot he dismisses as unnecessary–unless your reader is slow and uninterested in real fiction. The novel does not have plot, he implies; it does something much more important. Yet he can’t really express what this is without resorting to academic jargon and self-consciously pretty writing: “And in our own reading lives, every day, we come across that blue river of truth, curling somewhere.” I have a mental picture of Mr. Wood reading that sentence out loud and kissing his fingers like a chef: What a beautiful sentence! (Maybe, but what does it mean?)

And talk about a gratuitous slap: when David “sees Bathsheba,” Wood writes (on the way to analysing David’s character as one who “sees, and acts…[a]s far as the narrative is concerned, he does not think”), “what happens to him is not an idea, or at least not in the way that Jesus, that cheerless psychologist, meant when he said that for a man to look lustfully upon a woman is already to commit adultery.”

“Cheerless psychologist,” huh? What pithiness, what cutting insight. (That is sarcasm, which does not do well in blog-form.)

But there it is. He is flip, self-satisfied, self-absorbed. He is uninterested in the entire novel, obsessed instead with single phrases and turns, with minor effects and details. He scorns plot as “essentially juvenile” but leaves us with vagueness about what the novel should be doing instead. (Apparently “subtle analysis of character” is important, but he doesn’t make clear what this is.) Buy The Fiction Editor, The Novel and the Novelist by Thomas McCormick instead.