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31
4.2 out of 5 stars
How Fiction Works
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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on 2 April 2009
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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22 of 23 people found the following review helpful
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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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
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.

The examples Wood provides are analysed in a manner, which (for a change) leaves me hopeful that one day my writing could amount to something, where other books on writing by literary critics tend to leave me feeling battered by my foolish dream to be A Writer. Wood's delight in his favourites inspires and encourages one to read and write better.

Wood didn't quite maintain his desire to write for the "commoner" without the "true scholastic stink" of an elistist literary critic: although his examples and analysis of these great writers are by far the most approachable I've read, the ease with which he drops quotes from Homer, Chekov, McEwan, Wordsworth, even Shakespeare, by their very nature must be alienating for the "common reader."

However, I couldn't help but wonder if HOW FICTION WORKS wasn't Wood's subtle protest against the rise of the "thousands of foolish reader reviews on Amazon.com"[Pg 80]. Is this a literary critic's version of marking his territory? Certainly, many readers who write reviews for Amazon (or any other reader website) don't have either Wood's vast knowledge of classical literature or his extensive critic's language, but does that render their opinion worth any less than his or any other literary critics? At times I felt this book was not for the common reader as Wood's opening preface claimed, but a rather aggrieved response, a sort of intelligent and erudite "so there!" to the reader reviewers encroaching on the hallowed ground of professional literary criticism.

Despite this, I do agree with his point that there is a current rise in "moralising niceness," that the demand by reader reviewers for "likeable characters" tends to dismiss the tragic nature of some of the greatest literary characters, whose nuanced human flaws are not idealised into black-and-white simplicity. Perhaps I only sympathise on this point with Wood, because the characters in my own novel Dancing in the Shadows of Love have been criticised as "unlikeable!"

HOW FICTION WORKS provides accessible insights into some great literary examples, and the section on "A Brief History of Consciousness" was simply superb.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on 1 May 2011
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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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
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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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on 19 February 2009
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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27 of 32 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon 25 February 2008
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
on 28 August 2009
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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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 19 February 2014
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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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
This is a lovely book – by that I mean loveable, I think. Everything began with Flaubert for me – Flaubert was the author who invented the fascination of detail, of the specific in daily life. Though one must never discount the wonder that is Don Quixote and Laurence Sterne’s extraordinary Tristram Shandy, “Novelists should thank Flaubert the way poets thank Spring,” says Wood. Before Flaubert there was little of the “telling and brilliant detail that privileges a high degree of visual noticing.” It is there in some of Jane Austen’s work and in that of Defoe and Balzac, but Flaubert re-defined the art and literature poured forth in a new form. Realism is the key. Here is Christopher Isherwood profiting by the principle of realism:

“The entrance to the Wassertorstrasse was a big stone archway, a bit of old Berlin, daubed with hammers and sickles and Nazi crosses and plastered with tattered bills which advertised auctions or crimes. It was a deep shabby cobbled street, littered with sprawling children in tears. Youths in woollen sweaters circled waveringly across it on racing bikes and whooped at girls passing with milk-jugs. The pavement was chalk-marked for the hopping game called Heaven and Earth. At the end of it like a tall, dangerously sharp, red instrument stood a church.”

Now people could be unreliably themselves. They were no longer defined by jobs, by stations in life, by ages or sexes. Now the literary world was not bound by conventional description – now a church could be a tall, dangerously sharp, red instrument.

James Wood expands on this theme, brilliantly exposing the architecture of writing, introducing the category of the irrelevant but important detail and the irrelevance of reality itself. Life will always contain an inevitable surplus, a margin of the gratuitous – there is always more than we need. The writer selects what he or she needs.

“Is there a way in which all of us are fictional characters, parented by life and written by ourselves?” asks Wood. We are all characters, but what is just a character?

“Convention,” says Wood, “Itself, like metaphor itself, is not dead but it is always dying. So the artist is always trying to outwit it… Art selects and shapes, it reveres truth and truthfulness.” As George Eliot said: “Art is the nearest thing to life.”

And as James Wood says at the end of this book: “The true writer, that free servant of life, is one who must always be acting as if life were a category beyond anything the novel had yet grasped; as if life itself were always on the verge of becoming conventional.” To me, that is a challenge I want to meet and maybe one day best.
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