How Fiction Works by James Wood
20 July, 2010
I wasn’t going to write about this book. Not because I didn’t like it, but because I felt that I couldn’t really discuss this properly without having read the novels James Wood discusses. Although I’ve been reading non-stop since I first strung letters together as a wee babe, I’ve never formally taken a literature or literary criticism course since I opted for science A-levels all those years ago. So I feel a tad underqualified to talk ‘literature’ as such. But then, I figured this is my blog and I’ll discuss what I like. And I liked this book so much that I would feel like a fraud if I didn’t talk about it and let you all know what I thought.
How Fiction Works by James Wood has been in the bookish news for a while since it was first published in 2008 causing a furore amongst critics, bloggers and authors. I was under the impression that most disliked it, some even hating it. So I was prepared to be offended. But he charmed me. There were little chapters, some just a paragraph long with one or two thoughts on the novel and reading. Others were more in-depth discussions of certain aspects of the novel with liberally dotted examples and quotations.
Wood is known for his aesthetic approach to the novel and is considered one of the foremost critics of modern literature. I haven’t read anything else by him, but having now read How Fiction Works, I’m interested in what he has to say about other works of fiction. What really made an impression on me was how much he loved the books he discussed and the playful nature of his discussion. It wasn’t dry, stuffy or difficult but did make you think about what you were reading. And that made me want to go out and read all of them: from Flaubert, who I tried several years ago and didn’t agree with much; to Proust, Joyce, Chekhov and Woolf, all of whom I’ve been meaning to read but still haven’t; some more Tolstoy; and Henry James, whom many consider one of the key American novelists of the 19th century. And more contemporary authors such as Bellow, Updike, Pyncheon and Roth. Maybe I should start compiling a list for next year, heh heh.
But what I would like to do is to revisit this book again once I’ve read more of the books he discusses so that I can really appreciate what he is trying to say about them. But don’t let this stop you from reading it, because if you like reading and are touched by the beauty of words, then I think you will enjoy it as much as I did. Plus it’s under 200 pages, always a bonus!
I’m curious to know what others think of How Fiction Works. Have you read it, and if so, did you like it?
For those of you who have read David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Wood has published a piece about it in The New Yorker.