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How Fiction Works

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We felt this eminent literary critic's magnanimous offer to explain the secret workings of fiction deserved a page of its own.

How Fiction Works (Literary Theory) by James Wood, 2008

Here’s a syllogism for you:

- The New Yorker habitually publishes some of the best contemporary short fiction.

- James Wood is one of the The New Yorker’s leading fiction critics.

- When James Wood offers to explain how fiction works, you better listen (if you care about contemporary fiction).

Not a perfect syllogism, I know. A bit wonky, in fact (like those brackets!) But it works for me.

Even with the best of intentions towards Mr. Wood’s book, however, I had some problems with it. Not that it isn’t packed with interesting aperus. It is. The problem is the way they’re laid out.

The material is arranged – or not arranged – in such a way that the reader doesn’t have the feeling of following the development of a theme to some conclusion. Each chapter revolves more or less around one general idea about fiction – narrative voice, say, or character development – but the thoughts have a musing, exploratory feeling rather than proceeding by way of a coherent thesis. (Did Mr. Wood not pass essay writing in high school?) It’s as though Mr. Wood jotted the ideas as they came to him in paragraphs, without much attempt to provide a systematic link from one to another. That could be why each paragraph is separated from adjacent ones by lots of white space. Strangely, though, every paragraph is numbered. Is this to convey a sense of order lacking in the content of the paragraphs?

Another problem with the book is the overlapping of ideas. When you think you’ve finished with one subject, metaphor, say, it crops up in another chapter. In his introduction, Mr. Wood tries to explain away this phenomenon, claiming that it’s impossible to keep separate the aspects of fiction in a discussion about them, that they inevitably merge into one another. Ok, but his book might give me a more definite sense that I’d learned something if it proceeded more methodically from topic to topic.

Brilliant as his insights may be, I don’t always agree with Mr. Wood’s analysis of the ways that literary techniques used in specific passages affect a reader. Not that this negates the value of his observations; the important thing is that he’s making me come up with my own assessments. But his can be, admittedly, a little too fine at times. I’m reminded of Flannery O’Connor’s comment in a letter to someone who was writing a paper about her work. Her remark was something to the effect of: "Sometimes you academics strain the soup too thin."

Still, the straining does produce some intriguing results in this case. So many that it would be impossible here even to mention all of them. I will, therefore, focus on some that strike me as particularly interesting.

Narrative Voice

When it comes to narrative voice, I’d always thought there were two main choices: first person or omniscient third person. Mr. Wood frequently refers, however, to a variation on third person narrative that he calls "free indirect style". The main characteristic of this appears to be the conveying of information in a third person voice that nevertheless sounds as though it were being spoken by a character in the work. An example of this, according to Mr. Wood, would be the line from Henry James’ What Maisie Knew, in which the author conveys a thought of Maisie’s: "Mrs. Wix was as safe as Clara Matilda, who was in heaven and yet, embarrassingly, also in Kensal Green, where they had been together to see her little huddled grave." The word ‘embarrassingly’ clearly refers to the way Maisie feels about these enforced visits to the grave.

Citing the critic Hugh Kenner, Mr. Wood notes similar use of free indirect style in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. James Joyce writes that Uncle Charles "repaired" to the outhouse. That pompous verb sounds cumbersome. But the point is that this is the way Uncle Charles would have referred to his action. Mr. Wood finds another example of this narrative technique in the first sentence of The Dead, where Joyce writes: "Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally run off her feet." Why would such a good writer use the implausible ‘literally’ in this case? Because we’re meant to hear it as an echo of Lily’s own complaint about her plight. (Admittedly, you don’t always catch the brilliance of these little gems when you read them out of context.)

One of the attractions of free indirect style is that it allows for irony. (And where would fiction be today without irony?) An author can insert a sly comment on a character without appearing to do so too obviously. In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen introduces us to Sir William Lucas, a grandee who had decided he was too important for the town: "...he had removed with his family to a house about a mile from Meryton, denominated from that period Lucas Lodge, where he could think with pleasure of his own importance..." The delicious note of the word ‘denominated’ comes from the fact that this is the way Sir William himself, not Austen, would speak of his abode.

More than once, Mr. Wood flails John Updike (a New Yorker star) for a slip-up in the use of free indirect style. In the beginning of the novel Terrorist, Mr. Updike has the eponymous hero walking the street and thinking about the fact that he has grown three inches in the past year: "He will not grow any taller, he thinks, in this life or the next. If there is a next." Mr. Wood sees that italicized phrase as an awkward transition to some theological stuff the author wants to explore. It’s unlikely, as Mr. Wood understands the character in question, that he would have thought about the next world in that context. (While it did surprise me to see Mr. Wood dissing his colleague, he does eventually hail Mr. Updike as a "rich stylist".)

Before concluding his section on narrative voice, Mr. Wood makes the apt observation that a novelist is always working with at least three languages: the author’s own language; the character’s presumed language; and the language of the world. That third one consists of: "the language that fiction inherits before it gets to turn it into novelistic style, the language of daily speech, of newspapers, of offices, of advertising, of the blogosphere and text messaging."

Detail

At one point in his treatise, Mr. Wood says the history of the novel can be seen as the development of free indirect style and the rise of detail. Before those innovations, he reminds us, fictional narrative was long held in the grip of "neoclassical ideals, which favored the formulaic and the imitative rather than the individual and the original." Of the two novelists most notable for their modern attention to detail, Mr. Wood recognizes Flaubert over Balzac as the true original. That’s largely because Balzac lacks the Flaubertian tendency, by way of free indirect style, to blur the distinction between who is writing about the details and who is noticing them. Far from observing the nuances of free indirect style, Balzac has the tendency to break in frequently in his own authorial voice. But these words from Flaubert, the truly modern expert on detail, bring to mind the work of many writers today:

There is a part of everything which is unexplored, because we are accustomed to using our eyes only in association with the memory of what people before us have thought of the thing we are looking at. Even the smallest thing has something in it which is unknown.

Of course, detail can have a humorous effect, as in A Portrait of the Artist, where we learn that Mr. Casey had told Stephen Dedalus "that he had got those three cramped fingers making a birthday present for Queen Victoria." This is what Mr. Wood calls "comic specificity." If Mr. Casey had told Stephen only that he had suffered the injury while making a present, the passage wouldn’t be amusing at all.

Character

Some of Mr. Wood’s most thought-provoking observations have to do with character in fiction. His ideas on this subject may even run counter to accepted wisdom. For instance, it might be commonly accepted that, for a character to interest us in fiction, we should know as much as possible about that person. But consider how little we know about one of the most memorable characters in modern fiction: Jean Brodie. We hear nothing of her thoughts, we see nothing of her private life, her life at home. We only know her from what her pupils observe about her.

How about another assumption of literary appreciation: that characters should be transparent in order to be considered well drawn? Not necessarily. On this point, Mr. Wood cites Will in the World, where Stephen Greenblatt convincingly demonstrates that Shakespeare often opted for opacity and mystery over transparency: Iago, Hamlet, Lear.

And sometimes we get a satisfying glimpse into the kind of character someone might be without knowing that person at all as an individual – as can happen with an extra in the background of a scene in a movie. In these cases, the writer gives us an idea about a character without explaining the character. We thus become the writer as well as the reader, or, as Mr. Wood says: "we seem like co-creators of the character’s existence."

It begins to seem, then, as Mr. Wood puts it, that novels have a way of breaking the rules. Take the business of "showing" versus "telling". Ernest Hemingway convinced most of us that the author should show us the characters, not tell us about them. And yet, as important a character as Isabel Archer doesn’t have an especially vivid and independent existence apart from the author. What makes her interesting to us is Henry James' interest in her, an interest which he elaborates in page after page of commentary. In the end, we use that info to make our own "portrait" of her, if there is to be one.

Then there’s the question of dialogue. Henry Green argued that it’s the best way for an author to convey character. After all, an author doesn’t know what his or her characters are thinking any more than you or I know what somebody else is thinking; the author can only report what characters say and do. So the authorial voice should not intrude with explanations of characters’ thoughts and motives. Mr. Wood points out, though, that an author can communicate the sense of a character with no dialogue at all. He cites a passage from V.S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas in which the poignancy of the scene derives largely from the suppression of dialogue.

Mr. Wood traces the development of complexity of character in the modern novel all the way back to Rameau’s Nephew, written by Denis Diderot in the 1760s (but not published until 1784). Prior to this, good guys and bad guys behaved pretty much according to type. But now we started to see good and bad warring in the same character. This inconstancy of characters, if we can call it that, their unpredictability, proceeds on through Stendhal, to Dostoevsky, then Proust, until we arrive at Virginia Woof and her ilk.

Mr. Wood also mentions the distinction that tends to sort novelists into two quite disparate groups: those who create characters like themselves and those who create characters very different from their authors. Not to say that one kind of author is superior to the other. He cites Iris Murdoch, however, as one of the former kind who longed all her life to become one of the latter group, whom she considered the great novelists.

Style/Diction

Perhaps a minor point, but one that particularly caught my attention was Mr. Wood’s distinction between quality writing and genre writing. (What writer wouldn’t want to be included in the former rather than the latter category?) One of the tip-offs to the difference is what Mr. Wood calls the "absence of different registers" in slick genre prose. Efficient thrillers, for example, tend to be locked into a certain tone. Like everybody wearing black at a funeral. More satisfying prose, i.e. prose that’s creative and daring, tends to slip in and out of different kinds of diction, as befits the passage in question. A sad fact of literary evolution, however, is that a style can eventually decompose, flatten down into a genre. "Then indeed it does become a set of mannerisms and often pretty lifeless techniques."

The Key

Whatever the narrative and the style used, whatever the approach to characters, one of the most significant things that Mr. Wood says about novels is that they fail "when the novel in question has failed to teach us how to adapt to its conventions, has failed to manage a specific hunger for its own characters, its own reality level." Doesn’t that about sum it up?

My Reservations

One of the points I couldn’t quite grasp was Mr. Wood’s touting of what he calls "a familiar American simplicity." He says that we find it as early as the writings of Ulysses S. Grant and Mark Twain and as recently as those of Willa Cather and Hemingway. At this point in the discussion, I think I know what he means and I’m all set to tip my hat to good old American simplicity. But then he says we also find it in more ornate writers like Melville, Emerson and Cormac McCarthy. Now I have no idea what he means. The subsequent elaboration by Mr. Woods doesn’t help me to grasp this "American simplicity." It seems to have something to do with the use of ordinary, everyday language, no matter how lavish the style. But I don’t see how the use of such language would distinguish American writers from, say, nearly all British and Canadian practitioners of the trade.

If there’s one major disappoint about the book, in terms of my expectations, it would be that Mr. Wood doesn’t quite fulfil the promise of the title. I was hoping for some explanation of the mystery underlying the appeal of fiction. We know that story-telling goes as far back in the history of civilization as we can see. There must be something deeply satisfying to human nature about hearing stories. What is that? What’s going on? Where is that place inside us that we go to when listening to a story? Is there some spot in the brain that story-telling stimulates, thereby producing the experience of special pleasure?

The closest Mr. Wood comes to answering these questions is when he says one of the main effects of reading fiction is that we develop greater sympathy towards others. Fiction enables us to "change places" with people quite unlike ourselves. It can give us "extraordinary empirical insight" into situations dissimilar to our own. Fair enough, by way of an explanation of how fiction works on us in a moral sense. But I was hoping for something more on the level of brain function. However, that may be tantamount to asking for an explanation of the great mystery of consciousness. And not many literati, even ones as clever as Mr. Wood clearly is, would take that on.

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