Friday, January 22, 2010

How Fiction Works by James Wood

I’m a sucker for each new, hyped book about how to write fiction. You’d think I was in my twenties, not my forties.

Several years ago it was Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer. Then James Wood’s How Fiction Works came along.

Yesterday I wrote about the death of fiction (at least for literary journals). Conversely, the one thing that isn’t dying—and is thriving—is the publishing industry’s slew of how-to’s on the craft of writing fiction (perhaps this also explains the 822 MFA programs in the country).

Which all means that it’s difficult to differentiate yourself, either as how-to writer or a fiction writer. Even if you’re fancy pants James Wood who writes for the New Yorker and is married to the esteemed Claire Messud.

A lot of critics disparaged Wood’s book, but I won’t get into that because I thought it was a decent read. At this point, I don’t read these types of books for the originality of their tips, but for the reminders they include—and for the quotes from other authors, who always say things perfectly (Wood has a great penchant for Henry James).

So here are the eloquent reminders (tips) on the craft of writing fiction that Wood provided for me.

On Description—Or Becoming the Whole of Boredom
As a resister of the contemporary forces of description (or over-description), I appreciate Wood’s take on description in narratives:

“Auden frames the general problem well in his poem ‘The Novelist’: the poet can dash forward like a hussar, he writes, but the novelist must slow down, learn how to be ‘plain and awkward,’ and must ‘become the whole boredom.’”

It’s this notion of the “descriptive pause,” a phrase Wood takes from Gerard Genette, when “fiction slows down to draw our attention to a potentially neglected surface or texture.”

If there’s a modern master of the descriptive pause, I think it’s Ian McEwan—simply because he pauses in perfect balance to delve into the intricacies of the mundane while balancing that with the driving suspense of the overall narrative. Saturday might be the perfect example of this, and his thoughts on suspense certainly inform this approach.

It’s a tricky balance, the descriptive pause. Too much description tips into a “fetishization” of detail—a tendency that can cripple contemporary fiction according to Wood (and me—I even accuse his wife of such criminal acts, just as he takes on Nabokov and Updike).

“Nabokov and Updike at times freeze detail into a cult of itself. Aestheticism is the great risk here, and also an exaggeration of the noticing eye (There is so much detail in life that is not purely visual),” Wood writes.

To take on Nabokov is a risky endeavor for even the most erudite, but Wood bravely proceeds: “…Nabokov wants to tell us how important it is to notice. Nabokov’s fiction is always becoming propaganda on behalf of good noticing, hence on behalf of itself.”

What an efficient take on at least one aspect of Nabokov.

Most writers blind spot is the area they think is their strength: characterization. I think it’s because we often think that because we love people, indulge in observing them, have friends and lovers and family, etc., that we inherently bring an assorted cast to life on the page.

Wood quotes Iris Murdoch on this point: “How soon one discovers that, however much one is in the ordinary sense ‘interested in other people,’ this interest has left one far short of possessing the knowledge required to create a character who is not oneself.”

Writers tend to compensate by providing a lot of God awful character background, answering all of those questions they hear in their writing workshops.


It’s about mystery. Wood quotes from Stephen Greenblatt’s analysis of Shakespeare, how he minimized causal explanations and psychological rationales and “took out a key explanatory element, thereby occluding the rationale, motivation, or ethical principal that accounted for the action that was to unfold. The principle was not the making of a riddle to be solved, but the creation of a strategic opacity.”

In other words, E.M. Forrester’s notions of “flat” and “round” characters don’t matter as much as the intrinsic intrigue of a character.

As Virginia Wolf writes after reading Crime and Punishment and The Idiot, “These are characters without any features at all. We go into them as we descend into some enormous cavern.”

There’s much more, of course, but in the end these things come down to an author’s quote. For this one, I’ll conclude with Wood’s selection for his opening quote.

“There is only one recipe—to care a great deal for the cookery.” –Henry James

What more do you need to know?

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