Excursions Of A Bibliophile

What are u reading these days?

How Fiction Works – James Wood

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on June 20, 2009

For all its beauty, intellectual nourishment and entertainment, fiction remains a rough terrain. Genres, sub genres, eras, narratives, subjects, themes, styles, plots, detail, dialogue, pace, language and translations – all conspire to make it a hard landscape to stroll through and make sense of. Reading, as we all know, is an intensely private and voluntary activity, therefore, I believe that a reader ought to be the final arbiter in judging the merits of a work that she is reading. However, there is a need for this judgment to be balanced, well considered and thoughtful. One way to enhance this ability to judge a work of fiction is to have a mental compass or a framework which provides the parameters that aid in the formulation of this judgment. The ability to judge a work of fiction has twin benefits of refining our pleasure of reading and also makes us a better chooser of books. When it comes to picking books, it should be the aim of all readers to cease resembling a bull in a china shop. With the reading of James Wood‘s “How Fiction Works“, I think my journey in understanding the mechanics of fiction appears to have begun

I owe my gratitude to Pradeep Sebastian of the The Hindu for introducing me to James Wood through a small article he had written long ago in one of the sunday editions. He himself was introduced to the writings of Wood by the writer Amit Chaudhari. Wood is well read and a deep lover of fiction and every page of the book reflects that. He is a staff writer at The New Yorker and Professor of the Practice of Literary Criticism at Harvard . The depth and coverage of various aspects of fiction are not only impressive for the originality of his thought but also for the touch of an accomplished scholar in every aspect of the discussion (can’t believe he is 1965 born!!!). Time and again Wood provides the aha! experience.

Wood starts the book with a wonderful discussion on narrative styles and quickly establishes the preeminence of first person indirect style and traces its rise to prominence. In fact at one stage Wood unhesitatingly makes a claim that the history of novel can be part explained as the history of the rise of first person indirect narrative style. While explaining this Wood gives us multiple examples from a wide variety of writers to drive home the point and it is this eclecticism that makes Wood‘s exposition an absolute pleasure. Following on this Wood makes an interesting claim that Flaubert has been that singular figure in the history of western fiction who gave prominence to this style of narration and also introduced the concept of flaneur (an idle man-about-town) who does the detailed observation and narration wherever there is a need and especially in those situations when the need for authorial presence is forced to be minimal – “The rise of this authorial scout is intimately connected to the rise of urbanism, to the fact that huge conglomerations of mankind throw at the writer – or the designated perciever – large bewilderingly various amounts of details

While discussing the aspect of “Detail” in fiction, Wood introduces us to the idea of “Thisness”  ( By thisness, I mean any detail that draws abstraction towards itself and seems to kill that abstraction with a puff of palpabality, any detail that centers our attention with its concretion)  that characterises detail and its linkages to realism in fiction. The mastery of some writers like Joyce, Flaubert, Bellow in their ability to effectively use detail is very well brought out. Interestingly Wood says that “Detail” is not just limited to physical objects but can also extend to a situation or a fact….. Wood also goes onto tell us that in matters of detail, fiction and life are very closely intertwined and each has a positive impact on the other and given this intertwined nature, the ability to notice detail builds up gradually in readers over a period of time. Wood makes this wonderful point that life has excess detail and as a consequence the realism in literature is full of significantly insignificant details –“Literature differs from life in that life is amorphously full of detail, and rarely directs us toward it, whereas literature teaches us to notice or literature makes us better noticers of life; we get to practise on life itself; which in turn makes us better readers of detail in literature; which in turn makes us better readers of life. And so on and on…..” … Even as Wood discusses specific aspects of the workings of fiction he also subtly focuses on certain interesting aspects like the historical trends in novel, rise of realism and linkages between life and fiction. Consider this when Wood says that “Nineteenth-century realism, from Balzac on, creates such abundance of detail that the modern reader has come to expect of narrative that it will always contain a certain superfluity, a built-in redundancy, that it will carry more detail than it needs. In other words, fiction builds into itself a lot of surplus detail just as life is full of surplus detail… Life, then will, always contain an inevitable surplus, a margin of the gratuitous, a realm in which there is always more than we need: more things, more impressions, more memories, more habits, more words, more happiness, more unhappiness”

Wood is at his best when he discusses the topic of character in fiction. One is gently dissuaded from the idea of typecasting characters as flat and round or minor and major. Instead Wood draws our attention to the circumstance of characters and places a significant emphasis on what characters do or made to do by the writer rather than what characters are. At one point Wood says the following ” So the vitality of literary character has less to do with dramatic action, novelistic coherence and even plain plausibility – let alone likeability – than with a larger, philosophical or metaphysical sense, our awareness that a characters’ actions are profoundly important, that something profound is at stake, with the author brooding over the face of that character like God over the face of the waters. That is how readers retain in their minds a sense of the character

Following on this, Wood takes the reader gently through the rise in emphasis on psychological study of characters in novel and brings out the centrality of the observer on the portrayal of the behaviour of a character by writers. Wood makes this wonderful distinction between public scrutiny, publicised privacy  and scrutinised privacy of a character through the examples of  David in Old Testament, Macbeth and Raskolnikov in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Wood leaves us with the thought that the novel has shown a stunning technical progression in its ability to render plot, and in making the readers attend to psychological motivation

Precision of language in evoking a visual imagery receives a brilliant treatment from Wood. He sensitises us to the role of registers – name for a kind of diction, metaphor, simile as instruments of language and how various writers have used them over a period of time to render some impressive writing. In a similar fashion Wood talks about the role of dialogue in fiction and suggests to us that dialogue should mean different things to different readers at the same time

In all this Wood never allows us to forget the role of art in general and fiction in particular in extending our sympathies to the world and communities we live in. Discussing the role of art in our lives in a small but brilliant chapter titled “Sympathy and Complexity”, Wood brings our attention to the humanising effect that art can have on individuals. He quotes Eliot who says “The greatest benefit we owe to the artist, whether painter, poet, or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies….. Art is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellowman beyond the bounds of our personal lot

In the final chapter “Truth, Convention, Realism” Wood disabuses us of many conceptions that are normally held about realism in fiction… to start with Wood says “Realism does not refer to reality; realism in not realistic. Realism, said Barthes, is a system of conventional codes, a grammar so ubiquitous that we do not notice the way it structures bourgeois story telling“. Yet the story telling has a purpose and that is to make us tow the line of imaginative experience with a hope that we also teach a lesson. This teaching of the lesson by depicting the truthfulness of the way things are is in some sense realism. Wood asserts that realism can also accommodate versimilitude and that in adhering to realism ” the writer has to act as if the available novelistic methods are continually about to turn into mere convention and so has to try to outwit that inevitable ageing. The true writer, that free servant of life is one who must always be acting as if life were a category beyond anything then novel has yet grasped; as if life itself were always on the verge of becoming conventional

How Fiction Works” was an enormous joy to read. Never in the recent past have I felt so enriched as I have while reading this wonderfully lucid book. There are many noteworthy features of this book. First and foremost, Wood takes the side of an ordinary reader and hence adopts a style of narration and scope of content which is easy to grasp and pleasure to read. There is a very sincere attempt to bring the book into the reach of ordinary readers. The second aspect of this book is its staggering eclecticism. Wood marshalls writer after writer and writing after writing to either support his arguments or destroy conventions where he thinks he should. The side effect of this eclecticism is the valuable introduction I got to a variety of writers across ages and genres I have been dimly aware of. The stock of writers awaiting to be explored has increased vastly and so also the urgency. It has managed to stoke a great hunger that would make me read, explore and analyse the world of fiction with a heightened sense of passion, understanding and empathy. Third and probably the most important aspect of this book is its perspective enhancing nature. I think I will no more be the same reader again nor reading as an activity will remain the same for me going forward.

Excellence as they say is beautiful. However, all beautiful things need not be excellent. “How Fiction Works” is both at once

Afterword: Wood is the author of three books of criticism, The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief (Modern Library, 2000) and The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004), and an autobiographical novel, The Book Against God (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2003). I do look forward to reading them. For anyone interested in the subject of fiction, I would strongly urge to read these books. A lot of articles written by him are also available in NewYorker and Guardian which are easily accessible

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