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"How Fiction Works"

America's top literary critic shares the secrets of the books he loves.

(Page 2 of 2)

An analysis that challenges
Everything in Wood’s sweeping study is layered – presented, dissected, and then collapsed into a wider narrative. The prose is knotty, and unapologetically complex.

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There are, to be sure, more accessible books on fiction. Among them: Joyce Carol Oates’s “The Faith of a Writer: Life, Craft, Art,” and David Lodge’s “The Art of Fiction,” which collects essays from the Guardian and The Washington Post and is deservedly popular among aspiring novelists.

But Wood is aiming for something bolder in “How Fiction Works.” Like E.M. Forster in “Aspects of the Novel” or Nabokov in “Lectures on Literature,” he is laying out nothing less than a systemic analysis of the novel – that art form which he calls the “great virtuoso of exceptionalism,” always wriggling “out of the rules thrown around it.”

The messy business of characterization
What really fascinates Wood – and what makes the book hum – is the messy business of characterization: the “thousands of different kinds of people, some round, some flat, some deep, some caricatures, some realistically evoked, some brushed in with the lightest of strokes.”

It’s these characters, Wood argues, that are the “Houdini[s] of that exceptionalism.”
And it’s on these characters that Wood spends most of his time. He examines and refines the “Flaneur” theory of noticing, first mastered by Flaubert and subsequently adopted by nearly every modern novelist, where a character does nothing at all, yet does everything at once, soaking in the world around him in a series of Technicolor snapshots.

He writes about “The Importance of Noticing” in one section and then the “Propaganda of Noticing” in another. In a particularly expert digression, titled “Characterological Relativity,” he traces the novel to its origins “in a secular response to the religious lives and biographies of saints and holy men, and in the tradition inaugurated by the Greek writer Theophrastus.”

Of course, at the risk of being reductive, what Wood is really expressing is his own sort of love for the novelistic form, which seems to have driven not only his career, but also his intellectual life. In the final pages of “How Fiction Works,” after the rhetorical fireworks have subsided, Wood writes that, “[I]n our own reading lives, every day, we come across that blue river of truth, curling somewhere; we encounter scenes and moments and perfectly placed words in fiction and poetry ... which strike us with their truth, which move and sustain us, which shake habit’s house to its foundations.”

The achievement of “How Fiction Works” is to allow Wood’s “blue river” to spill outward from the text, until the writer’s “business of creation” has become our own.

Matt Shaer is a Monitor staff writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y.


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