Sunday, January 20, 2013

James Wood's "How Fiction Works"

For about two years, I've been trying to figure out whether to recommend James Wood's How Fiction Works to OTP readers. I just finished reading it for the fourth time, so you'd think this decision would be easy. My problem is, I want to help beginning to intermediate writers improve their fiction writing skills and their ability to sell short stories, and I'm not convinced Wood's book does that. In fact, I'm pretty sure it doesn't. But then I remember I've read it four times now and will probably read it four more times in the future, so there's got to be something valuable in there.

In How Fiction Works, Wood dissects fiction at a theoretical level to discuss why a bunch of words can evoke such thoughts and feelings in readers, and how subtly those words can work on our psyche. He spends most of the book talking about what he calls the "free indirect" style of narration in which how objects and events are described relate to the way characters in a story view the world. To me, that's obvious, but since I'm not a literature major, I didn't realize the extent to which older fiction was designed differently.

When you read extremely old fiction, such as Homer and stories from the Bible, the differences become obvious. These stories were written in a style that never once attempts to show the fictional world through the eyes of any character. The stories are most definitely told to the reader, and the reader is entirely outside of them. As Wood says, detail is never "gratuitous" and meant to convey a realistic sense of place, and the oldest storytellers "seem to feel no pressure to evoke a life-like passing of [time]" (p. 87). Here's an example Wood uses, which is taken from the Bible:

"And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son, and clave the wood for the burnt offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him. Then on the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place afar off." (Genesis 22:3)

First, we would today call this kind of writing "summary," as opposed to its opposite, "scene." (We'd also wonder why Abraham "rose off" twice. Wasn't he already up after the first time?) Second, you don't feel like you're right there with Abraham while he's rising up and rising up again. You feel like you're being told about something that happened a long time ago that had nothing to do with you. Compare that to any modern writing, which generally attempts to make you feel the way the characters feel, and to get you right inside their heads. Modern fiction is designed to make you feel wind rush over your skin, as opposed to just telling you "And on that day the wind blew mightily" or something.

Most of all, though, Wood talks about the tension between authorial narration and characters' viewpoints. Many times I've wondered if it's possible to write a story from a child's perspective realistically. Have you ever heard a five-year-old try to tell a story? "Yesterday, I was at school, and someone brought a bunny. A bunny, it was a bunny. There was a bunny and it was white and brown and it knocked over the juice." Do you really want to read a whole story told that way? I've seen some pretty good attempts, but five-year-olds aren't known for their wise editorial decisions about what details to put where, and when to let key information enter the picture. Yet serious fiction writers need to think about such things.

Wood's book intrigues me because he spends a lot of time talking about the problems inherent in trying to write both realistically, and through the eyes and style of characters who would make lousy writers. When is it okay for an authors to insert their own opinions into the prose? Or as Wood asks, "Can we reconcile the author's perceptions and language with the character's perception and language?" Wood's answer is "yes," and he spends most of the book talking about how great writers have done it, especially the French writer Gustave Flaubert, who pretty much invented our modern answer to that question and who influenced virtually every fiction writer after him from James Kafka to Stephanie Meyer, whether the writers realize it or not.

So if you're interested in a deep analysis of the mechanics of writing, I think How Fiction Works is for you. If you'd rather figure out why your plots or dialogue never come out the way you want, or why editors keep telling you your stories are too long/too short/too something else, you need a different book.

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