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.

I’m not here today 6

29 June, 2010

‘coz I’m Slightly Peckish again! It’s hot, it’s sticky and I’m in need of some lazy reading time in the sun. Check me out!

I don’t normally watch football but I’ve been glued to the tv watching the World Cup in South Africa. England’s out, Japan’s out (so sad, and on penalties as well!) and so I’ve got to find a good looking team to support now. Any suggestions?

I’ve been reading James Wood’s How Fiction Works and am rather enjoying it. Maybe it’s because I haven’t actually read most of the books he’s nattering on about (except for Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky which I thought was actually readable, pretty amazing albeit very intense, Lolita by Nabokov and Anna Karenina by Tolstoy). Methinks I need to get hold of some Henry James. What’s the best one to start with?

It’s taken me ages to finish this, not because it was difficult or boring, but simply because I was also reading a handful of other books. I’m not sure whether it’s better to just stick with one book at a time or not. In the end you can only concentrate on the book in hand. But I’ve finished it and I want more! The title is taken from a quotation attributed to Hayashi Fumiko

‘to eat and to write are the two reasons for living’

To Live and to Write: Selections by Japanese Women Writers, 1913-1938 edited by Tanaka Yukiko, is a brilliant collection of biographical essays and short stories featuring nine Japanese women writers of the early 20th century. Even though most of the stories were published between 1913 and 1938, I was struck by how immediate the struggles and conflicts the women characters face. The historical setting and material descriptions place the stories in a different era but the realisations and the self-awareness are things which women today still experience. Reading the stories made me ponder deeply about what I myself want to do with my life. And these stories, so varied and unique, left a deep impression on me long after I finished them.

I didn’t sympathise or like all the heroines, and I certainly didn’t warm to the men they fell in love with, but each story and struggle was dynamic and heartbreaking, most happening internally. I was struck time and again by the searingly honest portrayal of the women’s inner struggles as they tried to juggle family life, financial security, love and their work. Their methods in obtaining money and work may not be acceptable to some, but when poverty grinds you down, you can only do what needs to be done to survive. The resilience and the strength portrayed by these characters, who at the same time hurt and were hurt by the people around them, was humbling.

Because of the period in history in which most of these stories were written, there is a strong emphasis on Communism and the harsh experiences these activists underwent at the hand of the authorities. What was also interesting to note was how the women were also let down by the Communist party which they joined in the belief that it would provide equality between men and women but which in reality only mirrored the social structure in wider society. Tanaka Yukiko, who edited this volume, does an admirable job in placing these novelists within their historical and literary context, and her essays shed a light upon their work as a whole. What was interesting was how autobiographical most of the fictional work were in how they mirrored the struggles of the characters and authors.

Although I had only heard of a few of these novelists, mainly Uno Chiyo and Hayashi Fumiko, I finished the volume deeply impressed and wanting to read more stories by all the writers: Tamura Toshiko, Miyamoto Yuriko, Hirabayashi Taiko, Hayashi Fumiko, Nakamoto Takako, Nogami Yaeko, Sata Ineko, Uno Chiyo and Okamoto Kanoko. An interesting aside is that many of these writers wrote for a literary magazine titled Seitō (or ‘bluestocking’). Many were well-read in Japanese and Western literature and were aware of the political and social changes occurring outside Japan.

Tanaka Yukiko has edited a couple of other anthologies which I would love to read: Women Writers of Meiji and Taisho Japan: Their Lives, Works and Critical Reception 1868-1926 and This Kind of Woman: Ten Stories by Japanese Women Writers 1960-1976 edited together with Elizabeth Hanson and Mona Nagai.

I read this for the Women Unbound Challenge.

Uno Chiyo © Minato City 2006

Yup, that’s the official Nanowrimo 2009 winner’s logo up there. Well done to everyone who participated, whether you reached the goal of 50K or not. The fact that you tried is something to be proud of!

I have to admit this year was a bit of a toughie. I had two great ideas, one was a murder mystery (set in the late 1920s) and the other literary fiction (angst, complexes, feminism, you name it) and opted for the former as I thought it would be easier to outline and less vague, and I get to revisit my favourite character from Nano 2006. Well, I had my victim, the murderer was one out of three possibilities and I had an outline which had the first three points and the conclusion. Not a great start. And on top of that, I couldn’t write on the first day. And on the second day, I went straight home from work, set everything up to start writing and went to bed an hour early. What?? I hear you say. Exactly my response.

So I pretty much struggled the whole way. It wasn’t that I couldn’t write 1667 words a day. I find that if I give myself two hours every day I can normally complete my daily word count, but this year I just thought a lot more about the substance of what I was writing. Not the quality because that is something you can revise and improve, and it is a first draft after all, but substance. Whether what I was writing was meaningful to me and to my story. I didn’t really think about that the last three times I did Nano because I was enjoying myself too much and it actually turned out pretty well. And Nano is really about enjoying yourself and enjoying writing.

I guess this year somehow my heart wasn’t in it. But I’m glad I did it because it showed me that I can actually sit down and write. So all I need to do is to keep up this habit of putting aside some time every day to write. Anyway, I plan to keep on at this story just to see where it will go and whether I can settle on a murderer. And I’ll be reading more books about the creative habit and writing. Wish me luck!

Nanowrimo 2009

Yes it’s that time of year again when we all start thinking of ways to get out of social gatherings because we all need to knuckle down and get those 50,000 words on the page. This is my fourth year doing Nanowrimo and each year I’ve been bursting with ideas, reading books for research and generally getting excited all on my own, but this year seems a little different. I’m in a bit of a slump… I’ve got two ideas, one diagram, some names and should be really excited, but I’m not. But then, I can’t not do Nano, so I’m going to be sitting in bed every night with my laptop trying to find the right words to write and see how it goes. That’s part of the fun, you never know where you might end up.

Good luck everyone!