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Book Review : How Fiction Works by James Wood

Monday, 3 August 2009

I've always been wary of "How to Write" books : the obvious danger to them is that they merely attempt to pass on a formula, rather than providing a rough map by which you can go on to make explorations of your own. The best way to learn to write is to do lots of it, of course, and to read lots of what others have written.

But I enjoyed How Fiction Works very much. It isn’t actually intended to be a guide for writers at all. It does explore the techniques writers use to conjure up effective fictional worlds but is mainly aimed at readers. Nevertheless, I think writers can take a lot from it. Whereas there will be plenty of readers who won’t want to have the magic tricks explained, the scaffolding behind the façade revealed.

Wood provides interesting insight into free indirect style and into the modern-day focus on detail and the specific, rather than the generic and universal (which the move towards free indirect style must be a part of.) There is useful discussion on how characters are constructed, and on the ways writers leave gaps in their work for readers to fill in for themselves. Wood is very good on exquisite phrasing, on the perfect metaphor or word. And inspirational on the power of good writing to let us see the world in new ways.

Elsewhere, Wood completely loses the plot – literally. Despite the book’s name there is actually almost no attention paid to story plotting. Wood, elitist that he is, states that the reliance on suspense, on plot, is a “juvenile” approach to literature. Which is nonsense, of course, and Wood surely knows it : many of the works he admires clearly have perfectly good plots. You read them at least partly to find out what happens.

The book isn’t long and is certainly readable. Its structure is a little odd in that it is broken up into numbered paragraphs within chapters, making it read more like a series of lecture notes than a continuous text. Given that Wood is a professor of Literary Criticism, I suspect this is exactly what it is, in fact. But it works well enough.

Wood certainly knows his stuff : he draws on a vast range of literature to illustrate his points. Although his sources are pretty-well exclusively canonical : the predictable great works of western literature. Again and again he reels off lists of writers’ names to illustrate his points, so much so that you soon begin to suspect he’s essentially just showing off. The furthest Wood strays from the “literary” realist mainstream is, perhaps, Kafka’s Metamorphosis and The Bible. Impressively, the entire body of speculative fiction is reduced to the single word “Wells” (i.e. H. G.) and a mention of Edgar Allan Poe (who is, thereafter, referred to nevermore.) This is a shame : Wood would have interesting things to say about how fantasy or “impossible” worlds are brought to life and made believable. Still, genre-prejudice is by no means a rare taint.

But this is a recommended book for writers (and, if they’re interested, readers) everywhere. You’ll probably find – as I did – that you already know much of what the book tells you. But the point is you might not be conscious of knowing it, or of why particular approaches work. Free indirect style, for example, is something that modern writers do instinctively, without necessarily realising they are doing it. It is always useful to know how and why these approaches have evolved.

This is certainly a book to dip into again and again. It is emphatically not a “How to Write” guide; it is more of a “How Others Have Written.” And it’s all the better for it.


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