Monday, October 26, 2009

How Fiction Works: James Wood

How is the pleasure of a particularly spectacular ballet movement affected by knowing that the movement was a combination of a plier, an etendre and a sauter?

How is a great jazz tune enhanced by noticing a cross-rhythm and an augmented 7th?

How is the appreciation of The Remains of the Day heightened by knowing the concepts of unreliable narrator and the free indirect style of narration?

If you are like most, you probably think that deconstruction destroys the magic. You might say that by analyzing the technical details of how an author achieves a particular effect, you are killing the effect. A joke, you might say, isn't funny in explanation. And you would be right too, in large part.

How Fiction Works is the latest in a series of books published in the last couple of years that delve into the technical aspects of how to appreciate a novel. The latest and, I am given to understand, the most accomplished. John Sutherland wrote The Novel: A User's Guide, and John Mullen wrote How Novels Work later that same year. As you can probably tell from the highly imaginative titles of these books and the James Wood book I am reviewing here, all these books are written by academics, professors of literature (in Wood's case Professor of the Practice of Literary Criticism, quite a mouthful there) - in other words, professional critics.

James Wood is widely considered to be the best in the literary criticism business. Heavyweights like Saul Bellow and Martin Amis have recognized him as the best literary critic of his generation. And that is high praise. Writers aren't known to be charitable about professional critics.

How Fiction Works is a guide to reading. A sort of book about books, a meta-book if you will. In a couple of hundred short pages, it explains Wood's view of narrative technique, characterization, dialogue, consciousness, metaphor and the like. Wood picks fictional works from the masters, picks out a short paragraph or a single sentence, or even a simple turn of phrase and breaks it down into why it really works. Some of these deconstruction passages are the very soul of the book. Talking about the free indirect style of narration, Wood quotes a paragraph from Henry James' What Maisie Knew. In those few sentences he shows where the author is speaking in his own voice, where he is speaking in Maisie's voice, and where he is actually speaking in the voice of the adults that occupy Maisie's life. He demonstrates how the reader is taken on a journey of intimate understanding by these shifting voices. And he shows how Henry James achieves all of this seamlessly, without having to specifically 'flag' it to the reader. I read the paragraph the first time and I thought it was a well-written but by no means extraordinary piece of writing. Then, after reading Wood's breakdown, I read it again. Ahhhhh!

What makes Wood truly marvelous is his finely tuned ear, trained over years of reading the literary heavies. Very early in How Fiction Works, you realize how effortlessly he can spot off-key notes in writing, how fluid his own expressions are, how elegant and graceful. (All of which make his last name a delicious little irony!)

The other source of strength for the book comes from the sheer pleasure that Wood draws from his reading. The enthusiasm and energy that he brings is truly infectious. As one reviewer said "He transmits his enthusiasms so stirringly, it's practically a form of intellectual erotica". You read Wood referring to a book with great passion and admiration, and feel the itch to go read the book yourself. Any work that can do that is already a winner in my mind.

I take two issues with How Fiction Works -

First, that his sample is drawn exclusively from a different century. He lists a bibliography at the end that has about a hundred books that are referenced in How Fiction Works. The oldest of these was published in 1605 (Cervantes) and most of the books are by authors long dead. Wood's own language and sensitivities also seem frozen in an era long gone. In a way, it is as if Wood wrote the book in the 19th century, only to be released to an unsuspecting public two centuries later with minor updates. The only recent authors Wood refers to are Ishiguro, Ian McEwan, John Updike (in an unflattering note), Philip Roth, Saul Bellow and David Foster Wallace. And all references to these guys could fit into one page of the book. I really wish there was a more contemporary feel to the book, so I could relate more to the examples that Wood refers to.

Second, while most of the chapters in the book work really well, when Wood starts discussing realism in fiction, I fear that he loses his non-professional reader. Maybe the critic world is all a-tizzy about the question of 'Is realism real?' but frankly my dear, I don't give a damn.

A few years ago, a friend invited me to visit the National Gallery of Art with him. Not knowing the first thing about art, I was sceptical. I went anyway and it was a revelation. In every room in the gallery, my friend would spend a few minutes telling me a little bit about the way to look at a pieces from that era, the 'grammar' used in the art of that time. And it was like I was looking at the paintings for the first time.

Every art form has its own grammar. Learning that grammar might not be necessary for you to enjoy the art at some level. But once you do understand it, it adds a whole other dimension to your appreciation. It is like walking around with x-ray vision. How Fiction Works is x-ray vision for serious fiction readers.

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