How Fiction Works
by James Wood
Reviewed by Frank Kermode
The New Republic Online
This admirable book is, among other things, a successful attempt to replace E.M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel as an accessible guide to the mechanics of fiction. Without losing sight of its promise to address the common reader rather than the specialist, How Fiction Works is much more sophisticated than Forster's book, which is now eighty years old, but still, in a rather peculiar way, what James Wood says it is, namely "canonical." Some of its observations -- on the difference between story and plot, and between flat and round characters -- are still quoted even though more subtle discriminations have long been available, and Wood has thought keenly and profitably about such matters. He also benefits, as Forster did not, from wide reading in contemporary fiction.
Forster was not exactly lazy -- he undertook to read or re-read usefully some classic novels, and he consulted Virginia Woolf -- but his contemporaries (of whom, having lived so long, he had a great many) are inadequately represented. Gide and Henry James get some attention, but only to be found wanting, whereas novels by Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson and Norman Matson, little known even in 1927, are admitted as writers of fantasy, along with Joyce's Ulysses, described as "a dogged attempt to cover the universe with mud." As to the famous dichotomies mentioned above -- flat/round, story/plot -- they have been scorned by critics, if not by students, for almost a century. Wood's book offers updated versions; flat characters will never be the same again.
Wood's conversational style is a modern equivalent of Forster's, but for all its wit and ease of manner, this is a much more substantial study. To be fair, one must add that Wood has access to serious studies of fiction and its workings that have become available since Forster's day -- mostly in the last half-century, which witnessed the birth of "narratology." Some "narratological" studies are pretentious and dull, but some are not. Wood announces that his favorite twentieth-century critics of the novel are Viktor Shklovsky and Roland Barthes, but he cites them largely in order to differ from them, gently deploring the difficulties they present to the "common reader." In a longer book (which this one ought to have been) we would hope to learn why these critics won his favor in the first place. In this one he does usefully borrow some of Barthes's ideas, while contesting his opinion that "realism" has nothing to do with reality, being nothing but a system of conventional codes. He comments, but not as extensively as he usefully could, on S/Z, Barthes's remarkable study of how a novella by Balzac works, but he says only a few words on Shklovsky's essays -- for instance, the study called "How Don Quixote Is Made, " a title perhaps echoed in Wood's own.
It may be that few readers will much regret that Wood prefers to do his own thinking, addressing primary texts and readers less anxious to engage with Barthes's neologisms and Shklovsky's preoccupation with the notion of defamiliarization -- his belief that it is not the business of fiction (or any art) to provide something conveniently easy to recognize, but rather to create a particular and probably surprising perception, to transform the ordinary in ways he illustrates brilliantly with examples from that well-known realist Tolstoy. It is true that some of Wood's critical procedures somewhat resemble Shklovsky's, and his largely unexplained interest in the Russian author may result from that similarity.
Wood wants to ask some "essential questions": "Is realism real? How do we define a successful metaphor? What is a character?... What is point of view, and how does it work?" He begins with "point of view" and the case, not so special as some think, of the "unreliable narrator." To tell a story from the point of view of somebody who does not understand it, or for other reasons misrepresents it, may seem merely perverse, but unreliability can be a matter of art. Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier and Henry James's What Maisie Knew are celebrated examples, and Wood adds Italo Svevo's Confessions of Zeno to the list. In these instances unreliability is of course intended, and necessary to the novel's design, though it may well happen that events or things not intended to contribute to the narrator's unreliability are misrepresented by accident. With Ford's novel, which contains a good many mistakes, there remains the question as to which of them are intended by the author and which are not. In such cases, the author's errors can of course be attributed to the character. But in fact all narrators, even of the more usual "omniscient" variety, are in some measure unreliable, missing things out, reporting them wrongly.
So much is obvious. More interesting is the point that "omniscience" -- the assumption that reliable narrators know all about everything -- often, or possibly always, falls short of real omniscience. It comes closest when it employs "free indirect style," a subject to which Wood, though not the first in this field, has given close and rewarding attention. Using this style, the author claims to be recording, with comment, the unspoken thought of a character. Technically, the next step from this device toward the omniscient recording of all his thoughts and feelings is "stream of consciousness," which is frequently regarded as a modernist innovation but may be nothing much more than the re-invention of the soliloquy.
As an example of free indirect style "at its most powerful," Wood offers this: "Ted watched the orchestra through stupid tears" -- where, as he correctly writes, the word "stupid" is the clue that shows the sentence to be what is sometimes known as "f.i.d.," free indirect discourse or style. Without that word "stupid," it would just be "standard reported thought." And with it, interpretation gets trickier. Wood observes that the author would hardly call a character stupid merely because he listened to some music in a concert hall; the sense of the word (as in other instances of the device) is transferred from the author to Ted, who is embarrassed that he is weeping. In simple reported internal monologue, Ted is now thinking: "Stupid to be crying at this silly piece by Brahms." So now both the author and the character have a share in the word, with the consequent enhancement of the potential meaning of the text.
This argument is both clearer and more complex than a brief summary can convey, but I hope it is possible to deduce from it the point that Wood is making about free indirect style. It may also appear that this invented example (rather on the lines of Forster's little explanatory inventions) may be misleading. "Stupid" is said of the tears, not of the character, and the question may be whether they are stupid because they are irrelevant to Ted's situation -- has some anterior grief rendered cruel or ironical his presence at a concert, on an occasion when no music could be relevant? Or, as you like it: it is part of the argument that such opacities and ambiguities are valuable in fiction. Anyway, when Wood returns to this example later in the book he is wrong to say that "the reader had no difficulty in assigning 'stupid' to the character himself." Still, as he rightly maintains, "it is useful to watch good writers make mistakes."
The difficulty arises from the fact that, as Wood remarks, free indirect discourse is close to irony (and to ambiguity). He writes at some length about What Maisie Knew, in which we are offered a child's view of adult corruption: We "live inside her confusion." Maisie knows a lot, but not enough. In a long extract from the novel -- a passage Wood particularly admires -- she puzzles over her relationships with two governesses, and also with the dead child of one of them, a girl of Maisie's own age. Maisie meditates on the status of the dead girl, Clara Matilda, "who was in heaven and yet, embarrassingly, also in Kensal Green," a London cemetery, which she had visited with the dead girl's mother to see her "little huddled grave." "James's genius," we are told, "gathers in one word: 'embarrassingly,'" and Wood asks whose word it is.
He argues that it is Maisie's, embarrassed to witness adult grief, a little afraid of it; and he develops this theme with his usual resource. And yet the embarrassment surely arises less from the confusion that Wood identifies than from a much more obvious childish puzzle, of a sort that adults rather than children can find words for. Common sense says the dead girl is in Kensal Green, whereas conventional religion places her in heaven: how can she be in two places at once? It is, or it was, a common problem for children. Maisie's reaction arises from ambiguities in the cultural code that Wood inherits from Barthes. He rightly comments that "huddled" must be James's own word, but he thinks that Maisie might, by a stroke of Jamesian genius, have used the word "embarrassingly" to describe her own confusion. Yet it seems virtually impossible for it to be anything but an adult's way of describing a child's commonplace eschatological difficulty.
Commentary of the kind here offered will very often give rise to conflicting readings, and I do not often find myself in serious dispute with the author. Wood's book is full of acceptable insights on a long list of novelists and topics -- on Naipaul, whose A House for Mr. Biswas is a particular favorite; on Chekhov and Giovanni Verga; on Nabokov (good at metaphor); on John Updike (not a favorite -- we know from Wood's attack on him in The Broken Estate that he is judged incapable of that Jamesian "embarrassingly"). Wood takes seriously the duty of criticism to judge.
There is a problem that he regards as peculiarly American: the conflict between the desire of writers to use all their linguistic resources and their need to represent in a plausible way the language and perceptions to be expected of characters less amply endowed. Wood here judges Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, and Don DeLillo to fall short. Even the admired Saul Bellow is gently reproved for letting Tommy Wilhelm, in Seize the Day, perceive the beauty of the ash on old Mr. Rappaport's cigar, though Wood himself perceives it and is indeed so fond of it that later in the book he pays it a return visit.
Bellow is, for good reason, one of Wood's heroes, but his main hero is Flaubert, the inventor of an authentic modern realism. A passage from L'Education sentimentale, inserted to provide a demonstration of "modern realist narration," is Wood at his best. It concerns detail, whether included or brilliantly omitted. "How superb and magnificently isolate these details are -- the women yawning, the unopened newspapers, the washing quivering in the warm air." Wood gives many warm and original pages to the matter of detail: "Literature makes us better noticers of life; we get to practice 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." Having noticed, one may praise with discrimination.
The ability to praise convincingly, to communicate disinterested respect and affection, is a rare critical gift. It is important to note that Wood, who is often denounced as too scathing, has the gift of intelligent praise in abundance. It may declare itself in a single phrase: Muriel Spark's novels are "fiercely composed and devoutly starved." Marilynne Robinson in Gilead calls a grandfather's grave "his weedy little mortality patch," and Wood simply exclaims, "How fine that is" -- it seems enough just to say so. But a strange sentence in Woolf's The Waves ("The day waves yellow with all its crops") haunts him and demands lengthy explication. And a wonderful sentence in Philip Roth's great novel Sabbath's Theater requires pages of thrilled comment. The admired beauty may not be simply of language but of characterological invention: Anna Karenina, having met Vronsky on the train, notices that her husband, who has come to meet her at the station, has undergone a physical change: "Why have his ears become like that?"
A long section on character in the novel does not forget Forster, but we read him along with Barthes on the "reality effect" and are asked to consider a great many admired novelists -- Diderot, Stendhal, Flaubert, Dostoevsky, Conrad, Proust, Saramago, Hamsun, Thomas Bernhard, Svevo, Kafka, Beckett, Ralph Ellison, Ian McEwan -- and others not so unequivocally admired (Iris Murdoch, "who so wanted to create free characters and so often failed"). Wood's section on language and metaphor contains one of his rare falls from omniscience: "If prose is to be as well-written as poetry -- the old modernist hope ...," he begins; but the modernist hope, as expressed by Ford Madox Ford and Ezra Pound, was that poetry should be as well-written as prose.
Yet Wood is right to say we should read "musically, testing the precision and rhythm of a sentence, listening for the almost inaudible rustle of historical association clinging to the hems of modern words, attending to patterns, repetitions, echoes, deciding why a metaphor is successful and another is not." Wood has himself written a novel, but here he makes, by example, the point that critical prose should also be as well written as the prose of the best novels. The critic's critic is tempted to fill his review of How Fiction Works with quotations, and in the end may well repeat too frequently the author's comment on Marilynne Robinson, "How fine." There have been many books in recent years on the making of fiction, but I know of none (except perhaps S/Z, its admired anti-realist opponent) that can offer as much serious instruction as this masterly essay.
Frank Kermode is a frequent contributor to The New Republic.