James Wood: a review of How Fiction Works

I came to James Wood’s How Fiction Works after years of consulting Harold Bloom for my literary opinions, and so what Wood calls “this little book” was for me revelatory. Bloom is at once the most demanding and naive of readers: he asks writers to bring him through the gates of heaven, but is not interested, in technical terms, how they get him there. Reading Bloom, one might think that all genres were one, all writers using the same toolkit to deliver a “poetic argument,” that Freud was simply a better poet than Proust. Throughout all the books of Bloom’s I’ve read, and I’ve read many, I cannot remember him ever bringing up a craft word like “enjambment” (although, a google search on “Harold Bloom” and “enjambment” brings up this amazing New Yorker piece).


Therefore Wood’s book fascinated me, for these technical topics are where Wood begins, weaving a history of the novel out of a few basic principles of narration, and I’d recommend it to any aspiring writer or student of fiction. Wood outlines a particular tool for narrating, free indirect style, which allows a third person narrator to not only delve into the main character’s head, but to speak with that character’s language, a classic example being, as David Jauss points out in his excellent craft book, Alone With All That Could Happen, the moment in Hemingway’s short story “Hills Like White Elephants” where the narrator seems to call the other people waiting in the station “reasonable.” Only it’s not the narrator’s word, it’s the narrator using the male character’s word, a word which reveals that he (the character) is annoyed because the female character in the story has been causing a fuss about the abortion he is pressuring her to have: he wishes she could wait “reasonably” like everyone else. Wood then points out how this technique enables irony in narration, as the narrator can indicate, by word choice, the limits of what the character knows; Wood also demonstrates where the technique’s elegance fails, when a writer forces a character to utter thoughts which are much more the writer’s opinion than the fictional character’s.

From this form of narration, we move to chapters on its founder, Flaubert, for me the book’s highlight, where Wood describes the various methods Flaubert invented—methods which contemporary writers still use, often without question. Wood outlines a common area where good fiction writing, in the modern age, takes place, saying that it joins together three demands: “stylishness; free indirect style; and detail…” (31). Writers such as Updike, Bellow, and before them, Flaubert, attempt to write stylish, beautiful, unearthly prose, which captures a world in precise and evocative detail, which yet seems like it could have come, or almost could have come, from the main character’s point of view.

How Fiction Works is well worth reading. Perhaps my problem is its epic title, containing the promise of encyclopaedic breadth, a promise backed up in Wood’s introduction, where he describes his book as a general primer, of the same category as Ruskin’s Elements of Drawing  or E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel. Later in that introduction, he makes it clearer, a little, that what he is really doing is responding to two literary theorists, Roland Barthes and Viktor Shklovsky, and mounting a defence of reality in fiction. Wood is so skilled, and the book’s progress so smooth, that on first reading it may be hard to spot what huge areas are being left out, that the book is not really a “primer,” and that it favours a very specific kind of fiction, and what it does not favour is passed over in silence.

It is perhaps too obvious to point out that not all twentieth century fiction was written in free indirect style. Many good novels have been written in first person, and this is not such a dull point if we think about what “free indirect style” implies. A narrator who blends with her main characters, who allows those characters to move through a fictional world with a part share in the narration, who is invisible aside from her naturalistic arranging of events and the staggering beauty of her prose, is a narrator that works for some stories but not for others. It seems, the way Wood describes it, a rather artsy method of storytelling, requiring a reader to spot and enjoy small felicities of expression. But some people want to write like Tolstoy. It may not be coincidence, therefore, that in the generation (a term I’m using very loosely) after the modernists, we see the repeated use of the “augmented” first person narrator, the storyteller main character, who knows far more than a real person would, who is utterly in charge of his or her tale, who is uniquely equipped to present an entire world: I’m thinking of books like Invisible Man, Lolita, or The Adventures of Augie March. Wood is partly right that an Austen-like omniscient narrator is no longer in fashion, but wrong to think that this urge, this mode of telling a story, has also disappeared. Pnin, in the Nabokov novel of his name, is a suitable protagonist for free indirect style, because he needs help putting things into words; Humbert Humbert does not.

(It would be nice if this first person “augmented” or “omniscient” narrator had a literary past, and, wonderfully, according to David Jauss (in Alone With All That Could Happen), Madame Bovary, the book Wood sees as the origin of free indirect style, is in fact written in omniscient first person. Flaubert makes repeated use of the “I,” as well as repeatedly commenting from outside his tale on subjects such as cheeses and hats. The narrator is actually a character, even if not a very visible one. Pnin is also written this way, as is the superbly omniscient Ragtime: free indirect style can therefore exist within other forms of narration. It is no enemy of experimental or post-modern writing).

My bigger problem with James Wood is that from time to time, I have the feeling that he just doesn’t get it, that he misunderstands something really basic about fiction. Clearly, he is a remarkable reader. And yet he makes odd comments that make me question exactly how he is reading. For instance, on page 68 of my edition, Wood claims that when, in Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Little Dog,” Gurov eats a slice of watermelon, this is simply meant as a time filler, simply a sign that these events are “lifelike,” and could be substituted by dozens of other acts. To me, Wood’s argument seems utterly wrong. Gurov has just slept with the little-dog lady for the first time, she is married, he is a scoundrel, and his reaction to the sex is to eat, by himself, some water melon in silence. This selfishness, staggering when you stop to consider it, is a completely different revelation of character than if, as Wood invents, Chekhov had chosen to write, “Thirty minutes passed. Outside, a dog started barking, and some children ran down the street,” because in the story’s laconic style, this would imply a couple sharing the silence, a sweet post-intercourse doze, and Chekhov makes it reasonably clear that this is not what happens, and I think he does this as a contrast with Gurov’s behaviour at the end of the story, when he has fallen in love with Anna Sergeyevna, and is just as lost as when the events began.

Some stories do perhaps, as Wood implies, mainly interest themselves in offering a reader a brilliantly detailed, highly realistic world, and perhaps for those stories, the debate between critics and defenders of realism makes sense. But not every story wants to do that: Invisible Man, for instance, offers a progression of events that are meant to point at something beyond the text: they form a parallel to some real world experience of being alive, specifically of being Black in America. The plot of that novel is vital to its overall success because that plot needs to be all-encompassing, all options must be exhausted for the narrator, because the events need to satisfy the claim of the prologue, where the narrator describes himself as “invisible.” Realism is to some extent beside the point: the point is whether Ellison’s narrator’s “poetic argument” makes compelling sense.

Wood’s only explicit comment about plot, in How Fiction Works, is to reference its “essential juvenility,” and this is troubling to me in a book intended as a primer on fiction. Wayne C. Booth’s brilliant The Rhetoric of Fiction is here far better than Wood, because Booth is able to analyse why certain decisions are made in a story, and the purpose of those decisions. In one chapter in The Rhetoric of Fiction, Booth compares an early and late version of Henry James’ story “The Liar,” showing that as James rethought the story, he changed the language within it, because its specific language choices led readers to understand the story in a particular way: whether the liar named in the title is the narrator, or the narrator’s rival. If the narrator seems justified, then his enemy is the story’s subject, but if the narrator seems irrational and cruel, then he is, and James’ revisions suggest that he was aware of this ambiguity, and was not content to be dully post-modern and let the story imply that to some degree everyone is a liar. Booth says that James may have failed to make clear his goal, to make the telling of the story match its purpose, but Booth is able to chart the efforts involved to make the pieces of the tale line up: Wood seems unaware such techniques exist. This is why, I think, Wood’s book doesn’t even comment on the mystical, symbolic, propagandist elements in D.H. Lawrence’s fiction–that Lawrence, at times, really believes in what his novels’ events and language imply–because this would be to consider that in some works of fiction, the events and characters are chosen to illustrate some point that is larger than a scene, larger than a paragraph, larger than even a book, and this seems to be a mode of fiction that Wood does not want to consider.

In How Fiction Works, Wood comments that it is “astonishing” that characters in fiction still have allegorical names, and in a New Yorker article last year, he commented how odd it is that in a novel, one never sees two characters with the same first name, whereas in real life it’s not odd at all. These stray comments make me wish Wood could take the next step, and from them, come to the conclusion that the world of fiction is a more organised one than ours, a more intensely allegorical one, and so naming fictional characters is not as random or value-free as it is for real babies. Writers, to a greater or lesser extent, depending on the kind of artist they are, sense that how a story is organised has some allegorical import, that by lining up details and events in a certain way, grand effects can be achieved, that what Bloom calls a “poetic argument” can be made. It is one of the key ways that fiction works.

2 thoughts on “James Wood: a review of How Fiction Works

  1. Some great insights here, Daniel! I read this book about three years ago and remember really liking what he had to say on Flaubert, who was pretty much my all-time favorite novelist back then. I agree, too, with your opinion on the title–kinda intimidating!


  2. Hi Tasha, thanks! Yeah–the sections on Flaubert are amazing. I once tried to use those chapters in a creative writing class; not sure how successful it was.


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