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How Fiction Works

How Fiction Works - James    Wood It was thrilling, at first, to read contemporary criticism which addressed obviously important authors like DFW and Sebald (though they are dead too) in the same terms as Flaubert and James, explaining why what they do is good when it is and offering no excuses when it isn't. And it was exciting to see someone discuss novels in the same terms of narrative mechanics as workshop teachers apply to the short story. I'm very interested in novels and I would love to understand more about how they work or don't.But it turns out that, like any organism, novels are more than the sum of their mechanical parts. As the book progresses, Wood trails off deeper and deeper into incomprehensible minutiæ—there were passages I could make neither head nor tail of—and, as much as I should've been expecting it, I was disappointed to be left without the total manual for the novel implied by the book's title. Wood seems to know as well as any critic around what's worth thinking and writing about, but he doesn't have the answers any more than anyone else.Wood places (p. 154) Rameau's Nephew and Invisible Man in the same lineage as Stendhal, Conrad, Svevo, and Bernhard, which reminds me to read or reread them all—though I still doubt I will enjoy Dostoyevsky, also in the same list. His description (p. 110) of how Saramago's exploration of fictional construction of character is a mirror image of the American postmodernists' (Barth, Auster) gimmickry reassures me in my own naïve sense of what's good and bad. The book is full of worthwhile reading suggestions, handily collected at the end; you could do a lot worse for a canon of classics.Wood writes, "I think that novels tend to fail not when the characters are not vivid or deep enough, but when the novel in question has failed to teach us how to adapt to its conventions" (p. 120). (The clumsy switch from plural to singular shows how ill Wood's own writing serves his ideas.) I think this may be the key to the whole enterprise, and if he'd really concentrated on how a novel might "teach us how to adapt to its conventions" he could've lived up to his title. But Wood remains largely outside his examples, explicating them rather than letting them unfold themselves.Partly that's the impossibility of making an excerpt do the work of the entire text, but I think he also lowers his own standards over the course of the book. It doesn't conclude, it just trails off—with Wood, in defiance of his own complaints about other critics introducing meaningless jargon, introducing his own. When Wood suggests at the end that the secret to fictional realism is "what I must call lifeness: life on the page, life brought to different life by the highest artistry" (p. 247), it sounds profound but explains exactly diddly-squat about "How Fiction Works." Fair enough—it's a tall order—except he was the one who chose that misleading title. If Wood's book had taught us appropriately to adapt to its own conventions, this wouldn't be such a letdown.