How Fiction Works: James Wood

How Fiction Works, by James Wood

Published by Vintage, 2009

This brief, terse and powerful book of philosophy and the art of fictional writing, written by the world’s most read and discussed literary critic (Wood writes for the New Yorker Magazine) is designed to stimulate and engage the “common reader” without recourse to Joyce’s “true scholastic stink”- an overabundance of footnotes and unnecessary interpolations. Indeed this could very well describe Wood’s overall philosophy of the ‘novel’, which is abundantly evident here despite the initial insistence that the book would merely involve a kind of ”introduction’, whether for writers or interested readers. It is surely much more than that.

Wood begins his ‘primer’ with a discussion focusing on narrative, particularly the approach known as “free indirect style”. Free indirect style, is, as Wood writes, “a novelist’s kind of secret sharing”. Given that so called omniscient third person narration is “almost impossible” since narrative inevitably wants to “merge with the character”, free indirect style is a way for the writer to have his cake and eat it too. By way of illustration, allow me to indulge in a little quotation. Free indirect style is hard to describe; it is far easier to demonstrate through example. Wood gives three examples of ‘normal’ straight forward “omniscient” style:

‘He looked over at his wife. “She looks so unhappy”, he thought, “almost sick”. He wondered what to say. As Wood explains, this writing is very traditional, adhering to the notion “…of a character’s thought as a speech made to himself.” The second example he gives takes style a step further, according to Wood increasing the writer’s capacity for internal realism and psychological perspicacity.

‘He looked over at his wife. She looked so unhappy, he thought, almost sick. He wondered what to say.’ Wood correctly observes that this is the most “natural” style of writing today; a kind of indirect, non interventionist, observationist style, “flagged” by the author through constructions like ‘he thought’. But this is not free indirect style. Wood renders that in his third example, giving us

‘He looked at his wife. Yes, she was tiresomely unhappy again, almost sick. What the hell should he say’. Wood opines that with this ‘free indirect style’ “The narrative seems to float away from the novelist and take on the properties of the character, who now seems to ‘own’ the words.” Gone are such mundane conventions as authorial flagging or thought quotation bubbles; the writer gains psychological and stylistic “flexibility” by acknowledging the impossibility of omniscience and embracing a style that “wraps itself around” the character. Prose becomes less stilted, somehow more natural, and far more engaging to read. Rather than merely tell, the writer uses the power of suggestion, involving the reader far more in the creation of meaning. What the hell should he say? This is not the same as “he wondered what to say“. In fact, the differences are striking. To begin with, the grammatical sense is shifted from the rather passive “he wondered” to the far more emphatic “what should”. Instead of the author flagging the character’s thoughts, the free indirect style insists on including the reader; What the hell should he say?  simultaneously implies that the character is asking the question to himself, that the writer is fielding the question and that the reader is being asked to participate in the construction of the scene far more actively than before. Is the writer speaking here, or the character? Is the reader being asked to provide answers? Free indirect style is imbued with the flexibility and capacity to provoke and field all these questions coincidently.

The “author” relinquishes his status as Master and Commander of the text, but it is the case, as modern literary theory has sought to demonstrate, that the Author never had any right or possibility toward this status anyway. Free indirect style merely ‘institutionalises’ this philosophy in the text itself. As Wood writes, “we inhabit omniscience and partiality at once. A gap opens between author and character, and the bridge-which is free indirect style itself-between them simultaneously closes that gap and draws attention to its distance.” As he notes, “This is merely another definition of dramatic irony: to see through a character’s eyes while being encouraged to see more than the character can see…” Free indirect style, dramatic irony; the author is taken off the pedestal of omniscience and relegated to the position of committee chairman (chairperson lol); the reader, in a sense, is elevated to the same status. Both, however, know more than the characters do, and both have roles in generating and formulating the meaning of the text. In English last year we were taught that the creation of meaning in and around a text involved a kind of “holy trinity’: Writer, Text, and Reader. While the reader had a part to play, the writer would occupy themselves with “positioning” the reader in order to illicit a particular emotional or intellectual response. Having read Wood’s discussion of free indirect style I’m inclined to say that “authorial positioning” is only a partial explanation. That’s not to say that our English teacher failed to realise that the reader has an important part to play;  but Wood reveals that in terms of free indirect style at least, the author and the reader are in fact levelled far more fundamentally.

Continuing, Wood devotes quite a few paragraphs to his discussion of free indirect style before moving on to the history of its usage. He credits 19th Century French novelist Gustave Flaubert with making the realist novel, characterised in part by the use of free indirect style, the staple of modern fiction. Wood argues that “artful-but-natural” realism characterised by

good metaphor and simile; free indirect style; the ‘reference code’ in which the author makes confident generalisations…reflection, and quite a bit of tight editing and careful omission-this style always being highly reliant on what is said, on its control of reality…

Wood goes on to write that “No one would deny that writing of this sort has indeed become a kind of invisible rule book, whereby we no longer notice its artificialities.” According to Wood, fiction consists of artful mimesis, a “truthful” and “realistic” imitation of the “real” world, a kind of mirror for the bourgeois soul, which, while it can tolerate selectivity, cannot tolerate unreality.  Fiction, as Wood quotes Aristotle, should be about ‘the kind of thing that would happen’. Nevertheless, Wood asserts that regardless of our subject matter, “It is the artist’s task to convince us that this could have happened.” Wood concedes that slavery to Flaubertian or ‘Lawrencian’ degrees of ‘realism’ may be too narrow a path for fiction to traverse, because stories like Kafka’s Metamorphoses, even The Castle and The Trial, (which can be considered science fiction; although Wood would never describe them as such) would not qualify. Nonetheless Wood does not traverse out of his safe sphere of Modernist or  “realistic” writers of fiction: never once does he acknowledge writers like Tolkien, Ursula K. Le Guin (who I think is one of, if not the most incredible writer alive) or any writer of “genre” fiction. Delia Falconer, the reviewer of How Fiction Works in The Australian newspaper, picks up on this restrictive tendency:

This episode exposed a fundamental weakness of Wood’s criticism: the fetish status it accords to the “real”. It is clear, reading Wood’s wider oeuvre, that he has a deep-rooted impatience with books that go outside a certain psychological verisimilitude; nor does he care for writing that usurps the critic’s job by incorporating elements of commentary into a more self-conscious narration. Instead Wood places the naturalistic realist writing of Anton Chekhov and Gustave Flaubert at the centre of his pantheon; writing in which the authorial presence never breaks the tranquil surface of the book.

If Wood had titled his book How the Flaubertian Realist Novels I Approve of Work, or even A Guide to Realist Fiction, his relentless focus on the real would be less of a concern. But it is odd in a book that claims to offer a broader-brush notion of the novel’s technical and philosophical possibilities. How Fiction Works leaves out any genuine discussion of alternative genealogies for the novel (a lyrical tradition within the British novel that finds its roots in song, poetry and epic, for example). Indeed, it is so intent upon excluding the poetic that it sets up a specious intentional divide between poets and prose writers (the poet looks only for the “best poetic image”, the novelist sacrifices stylistic fireworks for authenticity).

Most reviews of How Fiction Works were gushingly positive, and although it is undeniable that it is a work of great power and insight, its restrictive discussion of the Literature of the Canon imperils its ability to be taken completely seriously. After all, the stuff in this book is not what most people read. To be sure, Wood does discuss, briefly, a few more modern novelists, including Australia’s own incorrigible J.M. Coetzee, but Wood’s outreach only ranges so far. His commitment to the canonical realist tradition also informs some of his more theoretical ideas about the role of the author (already partially discussed above). The Australian review again:

It is revealing that Wood names Roland Barthes and Viktor Shklovsky as his favourite writers on the novel. Both came out of a structuralist tradition less interested in an author’s intentional manipulation of symbols and language than in their magical recombinations in the mind of the reader.

The question of authorial role is not really solved in literary criticism: there remain many competing and contradictory ideas. But as Falconer notes, Wood’s own stance is revealing. His love for narrative realism, the Canon, free indirect style and “dramatic irony” all point toward a philosophy of fiction that reconstitutes the relations of writer and reader, while simultaneously pitching ‘the novel’ as a kind of mass mimetic psychosocial experiment for the modern era, a platform for “truth” expressed evasively, as if to qualify at every turn the sheer constructedness of the text.

Nevertheless Wood’s book is interesting, engaging, insightful and provocative; in short everything a good, well written volume of lit crit should be. For all you fans of mine out there (!!) doing a BA major in English, read this book. It is, as the cover suggests, quite indispensible.


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