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…