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How Fiction Works [Hardcover]

James Wood
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)

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Book Description

7 Feb 2008
In the tradition of E. M. Forster's "Aspects of the Novel" and Milan Kundera's "The Art of the Novel", "How Fiction Works" is a scintillating and searching study of the main elements of fiction, such as narrative, detail, characterization, dialogue, realism, and style. In his first full-length book of criticism, one of the most prominent critics of our time takes the machinery of story-telling apart to ask a series of fundamental questions: What do we mean when we say we 'know' a fictional character? What constitutes a 'telling' detail? When is a metaphor successful? Is realism realistic? Why do most endings of novels disappoint?Wood ranges widely, from Homer to Beatrix Potter, from the Bible to John Le Carre, and his book is both a study of the techniques of fiction-making and an alternative history of the novel. Playful and profound, it incisively sums up two decades of bold, often controversial, and now classic critical work, and will be enlightening to writers, readers, and anyone interested in what happens on the page.


Product details

  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Jonathan Cape Ltd (7 Feb 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0224079832
  • ISBN-13: 978-0224079839
  • Product Dimensions: 21.8 x 13.8 x 2.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 543,788 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Review

'...refined taste, keen observation, and the ability to make the reader argue, passionately, with it.' -- Financial Times

'Intelligent, well-read and extremely confident' -- Gaurdian

`the world's leading critic.... Whether he praises or pillories, he makes you want to read the text he's freshly filleted.' -- Sun Herald

'the overall spirit and implication of this book are as important as its direct statements'
-- Irish Times

'there aren't many book reviewers like James Wood'
-- Sunday Telegraph

`James Wood is Britain's lost literary critic... very little literary criticism achieves that.' -- Evening Standard

`James Wood's enchanting new book...Witty, concise, and composed with a lovely lightness of touch' -- The Economist

`exceptionally illuminating... brilliantly acute and enticingly widely red work. It should be compulsory...' -- Herald

`this compelling essay shows just how deeply, sensitively, imaginatively and joyfully he reads' -- Scotland on Sunday

`what is impressive about How Fiction Works is its practical utility' -- TLS

Review

'it's like being taught by a very good teacher...
your head will be ringing with images...they are beautifully chosen.' --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Examining greatness in a literary world 2 April 2009
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
An engrossing examination of the writers art, and a must read for anyone with a love of books and writing. James Wood explores classic and modern writers and their works to divine the essence of what makes great literature - looking at narration, detail, dialogue and other characteristics that make up a novel. This illuminating and erudite study of fiction should be read by all aspiring authors and book worms who ponder over the elusive qualities that create great literature.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Woods on Wood 3 April 2011
Format:Paperback
I heard just a part of one of James Wood's five "Essays" on the BBC Radio 3 late night slot and it alone sent me running out to buy this book. Well that would have been the reaction a few years ago. Now it was straight to the computer and Amazon Prime. I consumed / devoured / gobbled this easy-to-read slim volume, in little sessions, so rich the tastes and text(ure)s. He writes with that easy to read style, is almost always convincing, always lucid, always provocative, fresh and serious.
I'm about to attack a work of fiction, my first, trying to whittle it down / refine / compress it and Dr. Wood's work (along with a 'How to write' book by a writer named Prose, which I'm also finding of value) will be by my side. I'm sure I'll dip into Wood's off and on in the years to come, its short numbered sections, reminiscent (sp?) of Lodge's "Art of Fiction"'s lay-out, which I used when teaching screen-writing, making it easy to find nourishment in its bite-size entries. These few (hurried) words are in appreciation and thanks.
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
By Jennifer Cameron-Smith TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
The title attracted my attention: I know what I like when I read it, but I don't always stop to analyse how it works, or even why. I also wondered, as I made a decision to read, whether a book of less than 300 pages could address this to my satisfaction.

I found the book interesting. Far from attempting definitive answers, Professor Wood poses a set of questions to consider as part of critical reading. Consider the following:
`What do we mean when we say we `know' a fictional character?'
`What constitutes a `telling' detail?'
`When is a metaphor successful?'
`Why do most endings of novels disappoint?'
Professor Wood covers the narrative and style of a range of different authors, including Homer, Austen, Woolf, Bellow, Beatrix Potter, Coetzee, Le Carre and Pynchon.

For me, this book is a starting point rather than a destination. I enjoyed the writing, didn't always share the conclusions and would like to consider further some of the other forms of fiction apart from novels.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Very interesting and readable 1 May 2011
By Adam
Format:Paperback
Very interesting and readable - I liked the style history with the key developments as well as some pointers about different possible methods. This is aimed at the educated reader as well as the writer and benefits from being more real as a result. I got the hang of the free and indirect style within ten minutes of finishing reading the chapter; although, I do have to go back again as it is a fine and complex piece of human technology. I wish my English teachers had read this book, as despite having an English A-level many years ago, it really changed my perception of the novel.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A truly exhilirating read 19 Feb 2009
Format:Paperback
Don't take heed of the other reviews, this is a truly brilliant book. Part-literary criticism, part advice on how to write a novel, and part poetry. Wood's is a critic who writes like a superb poet-novelist and everything he has to say is pertinent to every would be critic and/or would be novelist. The book isn't just an account of how novels work, but how they can work better.

There are some truly awe-inspiring passages in this book, I had to put it down few times just to savour the writing and the ideas.

Don't just take my word for it, read the opening few pages. You'll be impressed.
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26 of 31 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Our Strangest Critic 25 Feb 2008
By Sam Allenby VINE VOICE
Format:Hardcover
This book comes with a quote from the New York Review of Books on the cover that describes Wood as 'the strongest...literary critic we have'. The missing words are 'and strangest'. I wonder why they chose to omit those words? And what does it mean to be a strong literary critic? That you can read War and Peace while holding it between your thumb and little finger? Having said that, this a gem of a book, although perhaps it should be called How to Read rather than How Fiction Works because there is very little examination of either characterisation or narrative. Instead there are many examples from writers such as Henry James, DH Lawrence, Virginia Woolf and Henry Green with critiques so perceptive that you feel inspired to return to their works. Wood's taste is at once austere and baroque: he wants the novel to do good, but to be stylish and new at the same time. And at least he doesn't recommend the work of Lawrence Durrell!
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Very nice introduction 28 Aug 2009
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I enjoyed this review of writing styles very much. The author opens up and displays the very obvious but craftily hidden techniques of the great novelists, focusing on the concept of voice - who is speaking and how. The book opened my horizons and may make me a better writer, too.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Nice. 19 Feb 2014
By MR
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This book encouraged me to read more books. A series of concise and clear lessons on how to appreciate the creative process of writing.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars a writer's tool
An excellent user-friendly book that outlines clearly the way in which to develop style. my guide now. every writer should have it.
Published 4 months ago by Flower
5.0 out of 5 stars Great for scholars and writers
There are others but this gives great insights others don't. I thought it was especially good for differing writing styles.
Published 7 months ago by thewritingIMP
5.0 out of 5 stars Great!
Very well written. interesting for booklovers, writers etc. I recomend it for every body with an interest in novels and ficition
Published 8 months ago by Liavag
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant -- Required Reading
This is obviously a work of genius. To have such wonderful insight and knowledge of literature at thirty five is exemplary. Read more
Published 13 months ago by Mike Duron
3.0 out of 5 stars A worthwhile read
A worthwhile read simply for experiencing Wood's enthusiasm for literature. However, this short book is less a "how-to-write" manual than it is an ode to literary realism. Read more
Published 14 months ago by Judy Croome
5.0 out of 5 stars An insightful overview on the techniques of great writers
Whether you are learning to write or whether you are already a writer, this book will show the little things that make certain works of fiction the masterpieces that they are... Read more
Published 15 months ago by Guendolen
5.0 out of 5 stars Helpful
I bought this in Aberystwyth and could not put it down on the bus back to my university campus in Lampeter (South Wales), just over an hour away. Read more
Published on 8 Mar 2012 by Arawly
5.0 out of 5 stars Ticks all the boxes
It is a great reference book, particularly for the sections on free indirect discourse point of view and character creation.
Published on 30 April 2011 by Janey
2.0 out of 5 stars disappointing quality
Whereas the content of this book is interesting and well informed, the book itself was very poor quality. Read more
Published on 7 Dec 2010 by Moira
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