I mentioned in an earlier post that I would be ordering James Wood’s new book, How Fiction Works, immediately. Thanks to our Amazon Prime membership, I had the book in my self-consciously sweaty hands a mere two days later, and I have now finished reading it.
The title of this book should perhaps be amended, thusly: How 19th Century Fiction Works. Wood is brilliant, but he’s brilliant about a certain kind of fiction, the kind written by Gustave Flaubert and his followers. He doesn’t have time for the ‘maximalists’ (Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, Zadie Smith, Don Delillo, et al., a group he refers to as ‘hysterical realists,’ a term he coined in an earlier essay) and therefore dismisses most postwar fiction, with a handful of exceptions. He quite likes Cormac McCarthy and Norman Rush. I couldn’t tell if likes John Updike (he certainly didn’t like Terrorist), but I think he likes Philip Roth. He likes Ian McEwan’s Atonement.
My point is, his taste in literature is pretty different from mine (I love big postmodern novels by Pynchon and the like). Given that, I became suspicious early on as to whether I could learn anything from his book.
But I can learn from his book. He spends a great deal of time discussing what he calls the ‘free indirect style,’ which, for those who remember high school lit class, was once known as 3rd person limited narration. The narration follows one character’s perspective and is privy to one character’s thoughts. This is opposed to 3rd person omniscient, whose narrator can supposedly ‘see all.’
This discussion is useful because of Wood’s guidelines concerning character and detail (and dialogue). These must all be appropriate to the character. ‘Apprentice’ fiction writers have a tendency to be too authorial, to let their writerly voice take the narrative over, so that the character is lost in too much detail, too much style. Apprentice writers tend to want to show off. These were all good things for me to read.
Part of the reason Wood doesn’t like the maximalists is their lack of restraint when it comes to detail. They write big, funny, shaggy books full of superfluous detail and stylistic flourishes that clearly belong to the author, and not to the character(s).
Wood writes that his book is meant for writers and readers, alike, but I would place the emphasis on writers. There are not too many casual readers who would benefit from Wood’s book. If, however, you’re interested in writing, or just interested in narrative structures (who isn’t?), you’d enjoy the book.