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.

Showing 12 comments
  • Joshua Duncan

    I’ve read a portion of Wood’s book and am inclined to agree with you. There some great nuggets for writers in there, especially since Wood is supreme mugwump at the New Yorker (“Maybe if I follow his formula he’ll publish my story!!”). On the other hand, you do come away with the impression that Wood KNOWS what fiction is and the rest of us should cling gratefully to his shirt-tail as he blazes the trail.

  • EC

    a C? You’re being generous!

  • Michial

    I’m sorry to hear “On Fiction” is weak. I enjoy reading his reviews on The New Yorker–perhaps even more than I like reading John Updike’s in the same magazine. (I understand he also has quite a bit of antipathy for Updike, which doesn’t win him any friends at my house.)

    Wood is himself, incidentally, the author of a novel (“The Book Against God”) which does indeed have a plot in that New Yorker-y way. I was surprised how much I enjoyed it. Its title rightly connects it to the neo-atheism movement (Dawkins, Dennett, etc.), but I found it to be warmer and more fair than that connection suggests.

    It also has a plot!

  • Trish Lawrence

    Great review, Susan. Thank you. I second the McCormick book rec. I bought it a few years ago and reread it last summer and thought it had a lot of merit. I am fascinated by Wood’s “frame” on his book, however. I think Joshua Duncan is right! “the rest of us should cling gratefully to his shirt-tail as he blazes the trail” sums it up quite well.

    My current writing instructor worked at the New Yorker for many years and she is much more encouraging to us actual writers who are laboring in the trenches of storytelling. I felt like I was back a few decades in time while reading Wood’s book. As if I were in a literature class during the 1950s-1960s and the professor (Wood) was waxing poetic about doing it HIS way. Probably the cover and the typography, and his attitude. I did get a few things from it though and will use them. I flipped through it again this weekend and realized it was rather dry. Thanks for the review. Keep it up!

    And good luck on your to-do list. ­čÖé

    Tricia L.

  • Lori

    Thanks so much for the review. I’ll check out the other book instead.

  • Sharla

    Don’t you wish you would have read “Twilight” instead? (Yeah, sarcasm doesn’t translate well.) Despite my false snobbery, I do fully intent to read it when I have one full, free day to gorge and then be done.

  • Kelly

    Ooooooh, I’m so pleased that you’re doing book reviews. Yippeeee!

  • JFS in IL

    I’d give it less than a “C” based on your review. Are you also sharing your reviews with Amazon?????

  • Colleen in NS

    When I read things like this review, I don’t feel so stupid for not “getting” some books. If I had tried to read that book, I’d have been all worried about not getting what he was talking about.

    Your sarcasm cracks me up! Esp. these bits:

    “(├óÔéČ┬ŁCharacterological relativity├óÔéČ┬Ł? Really?)” and

    “What a beautiful sentence! (Maybe, but what does it mean?)”

    My spell checker doesn’t recognize the word characterological – I think that’s funny!

  • Aubrey

    Your observations are insightful! My husband and I were just discussing this evening the folly of judging a book by its pieces rather than standing back and viewing its masterpiece (or lack thereof) as a whole.

  • Moira

    I was also very disappointed with my first book choice….luckily we have 51 more opportunites have some more fun. My next choice is Founding Mothers by Cokie Roberts. Anyone love what they read this week?

  • Patrick

    You might enjoy Colson Whitehead’s recent parody of How Fiction Works titled “Wow, fiction works!” in the February issue of Harpers, also online at
    http://harpers.org/archive/2009/02/0082377.
    I did get some things out of How Fiction Works, but I agree with a lot of what you say. I’ll definitely check out the Thomas McCormick book you recommend. Great blog btw!

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