I mentioned the other week my disappointment about James Wood's How Fiction Works. One of the first rules of book reviewing, surely, is that you review the book at hand on its own terms? No point complaining that a book called, say, The History of Rugby has nothing in its pages about football. A fair review of How Fiction Works, then, would critique and/or praise its terminology, its history, its readings and its style. It would judge what it was setting out to teach and see if it achieved its own goals. Wood sticks close to the commonly used critical lexicon (and is very good at explaining free indirect style which has, effectively, become his phrase), contextualises the books he reads, is a conscientious and voracious reader, and whilst he exclaims a little too often and sometimes confuses approbation with attentiveness, is a fairly decent writer in his own right too. What How Fiction Works sets out to do it does well enough. I wish it had been a more ambitious book and I wish Wood's oft-remarked intelligence was more clearly on show (his book is a good crib, no more); but it does what it does very well.

My problem with How Fiction Works then is, to some extent, rather beside the point. Articulating my problem with it contravenes that first rule of book reviewing that I mentioned above, but a footnote to the rule is that it is surely right to point out, regardless of its local felicities, whether a book is wrong-headed. My problem with How Fiction Works is that how fiction works is not a very interesting question (hence Wood's perfectly adequate answer becomes a not particularly interesting book).

When faced with a novel, I'm not reading as a practitioner or would-be practitioner. Close reading, for me, isn't an attempt to unlock a code, it isn't about seeing how it has all been done, so I can then go away, tooled-up, and create a version of it myself.

I'm not interested in such unpicking, but not because I don't want to "ruin the magic" or some such: I'm not interested because I think far more interesting questions about the novel need to be asked. It seems to me that asking how fiction works is a very dull question indeed next to the existential one that really matters: why fiction is.

Readers Comments

  1. Why is it then, do you think?

  2. Good post, Mark. I've been wondering whether it isn't in fact right for a critic to criticize a book for not being what it is.... that is, while it's certainly appropriate to say that a critic of a history of rugby shouldn't complain about its lack of coverage of football, in a broader sense, I nevertheless think that a critic ought to be wondering why a certain book exists. Ironically, I think this was Wood's tack in his negative review of Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men. Why is McCarthy doing this genre exercize, he seemed to be asking, and got roundly attacked in many quarters for not properly attending to or evaluating how well he does what he does in that book (which I have not read). At the time, I agreed with those attacking Wood, but lately, having read Josipovici and others, I'm inclined to ask your question, and other related questions. It seems like a limited role for critics to confine them to merely evaluating how well something is done. (It seems to me that lots of things are done "well", but don't do much to justify their existence.) Granted, it might help if a critic were first able to recognize what is attempted before criticizing the attempt (and I think Wood does this well enough at times, though seems to miss the point at other times). I am interested in the question of how fiction works, but I lean towards agreeing with you that your question is more interesting and fruitful.

  3. Why fiction exists is a very interesting question indeed, but thinking about how fiction works can illuminate it. Why did the fundamental human storytelling instinct take - among other forms - this particular form of printed prose, related to real life but not of it, around the beginning of the 18th century? What do novels do - how do they work - to make them so compelling for such vast numbers of people? Answering that question says a lot about why fiction continues to exist. As a novelist I spend a great deal of my time thinking about how fiction works, but I didn't expect anyone except other fiction writers to be interested in that. And yet many readers are curious about how a book affects them as it does, just as many filmgoers who wouldn't dream of making a film themselves nonetheless flock to hear a director talk about why they did what they did: it increases the depth and range of their experience of that work in particular, and that form in general.

    I think a reviewer's perfectly entitled to say, 'A different book about this subject would be more interesting,' but if s/he does so at length then it's not fair on the book, because it's not the central point of a review. Mind you, it depends if you think a review should be a piece of journalism about a subject with the book as a starting point, or a description of the ways the book does and doesn't fulfil the task it set itself.

  4. I agree with your initial take, Mark, that what's important is what Wood leaves out. If you take James Wood's How Fiction Works as gospel, you think fiction really only works when the writer uses the free indirect style to give appropriate (and only slightly superfluous) details about a character. You learn nothing, or next to it, about plot, story, narrative, dramatic structure, chaptering, scene, dialogue, or, importantly, endings, among other things. These are crucial from a practitioner's point of view—either as a writer or a critic. What's more, you are lead to believe the first person is passe or unimportant.
    What I think you also get with his book is a young whipper-snapper trying to engage a couple venerable old lions: Gass and Barthes.
    My blogging on this subject can be found over at: Wisdom of the West.

  5. Mark: I think it's a question of raised expectations. I expected a version of Forster's Aspects of the Novel, and was pleasantly surprised. Jim H is right when he points out that important 'aspects of the novel' aren't covered by Wood...I think a better title would have been How Realism Works...still, I found the book very satisfying, well written, with plenty of panache, as usual. But more than this, the book contains a spirited attack on Gass et al, and a great defense of realism. This was more than I expected, and most entertaining. I' ve written a review of the book that should be online shortly.

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