Wednesday, April 1, 2009

How Fiction Works by James Wood

The house of fiction has many windows, but only two or three doors.

In How Fiction Works, the critic James Wood tries “to be mindful of the common reader” and reduce what Joyce calls, “true scholastic stink” to bearable levels. Like an art critic would break down the elements of artistic style, from drawing to painting, to penciling in the appropriate amount of shade, Wood reveals aspects about the art of fiction. Is realism real? How do we define a successful metaphor? What is a character, etc? Old questions indeed but like he says in this book, he means to answer them differently, by asking a critic’s questions and offering a writer’s answers.

This being one of the only books I’ve ever read of this type, I found it short and readable, yet supremely condescending at the same time. I imagined Wood more than once in a tweed jacket the color of cardboard, with a pipe tucked supremely in the corner of his mouth, whilst sitting in the orange upholstered wingchair amongst his vast library of Chekhov, Joyce, Nabokov, just to name a few. Like the guy who used to do those Mobile Masterpiece introductions. I felt snobby and the need to adopt an English accent while reading it.

But still, he made me take a deeper look, at words themselves, at characters, at the art of the effective metaphor. I learned the how’s and why’s of why New York garbage men call maggots, “disco rice,” why Marilynne Robison called a grave a “weedy little mortality patch,” and Katherine Manfield’s “grandmother saying her prayers like someone rummaging through tissue paper.”

He is particularly obsessed of a certain kind of visual simile and metaphor that describes fire, calling them “tremendously successful.”

Lawrence, seeing a fire in a grate, writes of it as “that rushing bouquet of new flames in the chimney” (Sea and Sardinia). Hardy describes a “scarlet handful of fire” in Gabriel Oaks cottage in Far from the Madding Crowd. Bellow has this sentence in his story A Silver Dish: “The blue flames fluttered like a school of fish in the coal fire.”

It’s not hard to tell, this is obviously a man in love with words, and an attentive lover he is. He made me question what I’m looking for in a book. Why am I reading? I want to escape. I want answers to life’s questions. I want to learn something new. I am like he, a woman in search of “that blue river of truth, curling somewhere; we encounter scenes and moments and perfectly placed words in fiction and poetry, in film and drama, which strike us with their truth, which move and sustain us, which shake habit’s house to it’s foundation.”

Did this book “shake habit’s house” for me? Absolutely. If you're looking to be intellectually dazzled and increase your knowledge even a tiny bit, I highly recommend reading this. Now if only a movie would've been included like on Mobile Masterpiece. Then it would've been perfect. 4 stars


Serena said...

I dunno how I feel about reading another book that could come off as condescending. I read the Art of Fiction by John Gardner and couldn't stand it.

L said...

He doesn't talk down to us little common folk too much, he just obviously thinks he knows alot about literature and more specifically, language. Alot of his vocabulary intimidated me on some level, but to me that seemed the point of the book, to stretch what we already know into something deeper. It wasn't over the top most of the time, but sometimes, yes, my eyeballs did get a good look at the back of my head.
Despite that, overall, I learned quite a bit.

Rebecca Reid said...

I've heard this book is quite good for the genre of "how to better approach reading". I think that is generally a genre of people "talking down" to you, though, so i expect it. Thanks for this review. Sounds intriguing.

L said...

"How to better approach reading" is a perfect fit for this book. Writing too, it would help with that.