Expert Counsel

In his brief introduction to this valuable and entertaining primer, James Wood proposes to explore the following central questions about the art of fiction: “Is realism real? How do we define a successful metaphor? What is a character? When do we recognize a brilliant use of detail in fiction? What is point of view and how does it work? What is imaginative sympathy? Why does fiction move us?” If the book has a larger argument, he continues, “it is that fiction is both artifice and verisimilitude, and that there is nothing difficult in holding together the two positions.” Probably no one would dissent from the claim that fiction is artifice; but its verisimilitude is more problematic, and Wood has always been preoccupied with that problem. His first book of essays, The Broken Estate, has as its opening sentence, “The real is the atlas of fiction, over which all novelists search,” and to further extend that search is always Wood’s aim. As a practicing novelist himself—The Book Against God is a canny and engaging performance—he knows that memorable performance in criticism, as in fiction, is dependent on an imaginative use of language, on a style. “Artifice” is required not only in the novelist; criticism should also be as creative as the critic can make it.

One of the most attractive things about Wood’s new book is its physical format and uncluttered mode of presentation, beginning with the no-nonsense three-word title, with “works” promising the real lowdown. Its 248 pages of text are divided into 123 numbered sections, some of them very brief, all of them in large bold type; the relatively few footnotes are placed at the bottom of the page for handy reference. Wood tells us he has tried to reduce what James Joyce called “the true scholastic stink” to bearable levels, and he claims to have used, as his examples, only books that can be found in his study. Such an address to the reader is a way of separating his book from more “professional studies” and also a bid, made with artifice, at attracting an audience not exclusively academic. His ideal reader is perhaps the intelligent nonspecialist who likes to read novels. Although one of his favorite modern critics of fiction is the formidable formalist Roland Barthes, Wood opposes Barthes’s deconstruction of realist fiction—what he calls Barthes’s “sensitive, murderous hostility to realism.”

The coupling of “murderous” with “sensitive” is a nice example of Wood’s creative style. The most obvious precursor of this book is E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, which Wood calls “imprecise.” In fact, Forster’s essays are rather heavy with charm (“Yes, oh, dear, yes, the novel tells a story”) and not terribly useful in describing how narrative works. Wood doesn’t mention that Forster is also oddly deficient in never mentioning Flaubert as a crucial figure in narrative theory and practice, but the most vivid pages in his own book (ones I will focus on here) are those that make up his opening section (“Narrating”) and two following ones on Flaubert and modern narrative.

He begins by considering the much-used term “omniscient narrative” and observes that it’s “rarely as omniscient as it seems”: “To begin with, authorial style generally has a way of making third-person omniscience seem partial and inflected.” For “as soon as someone tells a story about a character, narrative seems to want to bend itself around that character, wants to merge with that character, to take on his or her way of thinking and speaking.” This “bending,” he notes, is what is known as “free indirect style,” which can also be called dramatic irony, inviting us to “see through a character’s eyes while being encouraged to see more than the character can see.”

But, Wood insists, it is a narrative mistake to employ language that sees so much more than the character could plausibly see. His example of such disproportion are some sentences from John Updike’s Terrorist, where Updike’s protagonist, an eighteen-year-old Muslim boy, is given thoughts that sound too much like Updike’s. Wood calls this “planting big authorial flags,” as in the youth’s reflection, “Who would forever stoke Hell’s boilers?” Such a sentence spoils the illusion of an eighteen-year-old thinking. Yet this “sharing” of the language by narrator and character is something Wood admires when it occurs in Joyce or Saul Bellow. For example, he points out, we don’t really believe that Leopold Bloom in Ulysses notices “the flabby gush of porter” as it is poured into a drain, or appreciates “the buzzing prongs” of a fork in a restaurant. These perceptions are clearly Joyce’s, so the reader in effect makes a “treaty” with the writer by recognizing that Bloom will sometimes sound like Bloom, sometimes like Joyce. A similar treaty is made when we accord Tommy Wilhelm, the lumpish hero of Bellow’s Seize the Day, his various exquisite perceptions. It’s not clear to me why the same treaty of shared language can’t be made with Updike and his protagonist; certainly the power of his Rabbit novels is dependent upon such sharing between novelist and protagonist. But Wood has never liked Updike much.

One of the best things about How Fiction Works is that it provokes a reader into activity, occasionally of disagreement, much more often of agreement, usually accompanied by a pleased surprise at the felicity of expressive formulation. Wood is enlivening on how “detail” in fiction is to be relished but can also cloy by its too-muchness: Henry James, he says, “would probably argue that while we should indeed try to be the kind of writer on whom nothing is lost, we have no need to be the kind of writer on whom everything is found.” He remarks that young students are not good at noting metaphors and images that strike him as wonderful: “They have not yet read enough literature to be taught by it how to read it.” His perceptions about individual writers are original and exact, as when he calls Muriel Spark’s novels “fiercely composed and devoutly starved.” These are a few of many examples of fresh and vivid formulations that make How Fiction Works a contribution to permanent criticism. It would be a splendid book to assign to any class of undergraduates in which fiction is a central concern. But experienced readers will also find themselves challenged and energized by it.

Published in the 2008-10-10 issue: 

William H. Pritchard, a frequent contributor, is the Henry Clay Folger Professor of English, Emeritus, at Amherst College.

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