Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

I have been meandering my way through James Wood’s How Fiction Works for the last month or so and finally finished it up over the weekend. I think what I love the most about this little book is how easy Wood makes the study of literature appear. He condenses years of study and probably thousands upon thousands of hours of passionate, careful reading into a series of thematically-linked paragraphs. Paragraph 1 begins with narrative perspective and Paragraph 123 ends the book with a succinct appeal to craft:

…for 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 the novel had yet grasped; as if life itself were always on the verge of becoming conventional.

This last sentence is Wood’s answer to the assertion that literary realism is no longer a viable genre. To get to this statement, he visits several of realism’s loudest denouncers (Roland Barthes, Rick Moody, William Gass…) and disagrees with their conclusions that because fiction suffers from convention it therefore cannot ever express what is real:

…just because artifice and convention are involved in a literary style does not mean that realism (or any other narrative style) is so artificial and conventional that it is incapable of referring to reality.

Wood concedes that literary techniques are constantly becoming conventional. Of course narrative techniques, expressions, metaphors and all the other building blocks of fiction are always and forever ‘at-risk’ of rendering themselves ineffective. What is called into question is their ability to render ‘truth’ in an original and novel way, but never their ability to reflect reality.

I’ve never been particularly fussed about the debate on literary realism. I think both perspectives provide insight into how fiction works as an art form, how it is negotiated by readers. I am definitely more rooted in literary realism, however, so I would never be the kind of reader to chuck it out the window anyway, but I appreciated Wood’s championing of the genre as well as his celebration of the writer who simultaneously embraces realism while writing to escape all that has already been written.

So, I’ve only touched on approximately 20 pages of this excellent 180-page book. I’ll see if I have more to say another day…

10 Responses to “About the end of James Wood's How Fiction Works”

  1. sakura

    I really enjoyed reading this book too although I was expecting it to be difficult and boring (I haven’t read anything by James Wood before and there was a mixed reception to this book). Looking forward to more of your thoughts!

    • Michelle

      It was deceptively simple wasn’t it – lots of good information, but presented so concisely. I like Wood’s writing style.

    • Michelle

      Can’t wait to hear what you think about it, Lilian.

  2. Stefanie

    This sounds good. Looking forward to seeing if he inspires anything else from you 🙂

    • Michelle

      We’ll see – hopefully I’ll have more to say.

  3. litlove

    Yes, the anti-realism brigade seems more strident lately once again. I don’t understand it myself, but feel sure it is bound up with an idealised notion of reading (and creativity) that reflects well on the person who eschews simplistic realism in favour of more demanding experimentalism…. I don’t think the argument stands up to reason. I have a volume of James Woods’ essays which I must try. I’m awful about reading critics; nowhere am I more picky and critical than reading them! That’s what comes of working in a similar business, alas.

  4. Guilherme

    I’ll see if I have more to say another day…

    Please, please,please,pleeeeeeeeeeeeeease… ; )

  5. Dorothy W.

    This sounds really great! I love reading realistic novels and experimental ones both, so I don’t see why there has to be a battle between the forms! As a reader, I’m all about variety — if you do realism well, great, and if you reject realism in interesting ways, wonderful!

  6. Michelle

    Litlove – I’d love to see your reaction to Wood, for the very reason that you mention. I don’t find myself able to debate with him, not that I’d necessarily want to, but I do wish I had more formal training in criticism. I’m sure I’d probably get more out of his work.

    Guilherme – you are too kind!

    Dorothy – I’m with you. I love reading too much to fall into one camp or the other. I can be definitely be a snob in the debate between genre fiction and literary fiction, but I’m pretty open-minded about my literary fiction.

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