'How Fiction Works'

By Shaer, Matt | The Christian Science Monitor, July 25, 2008 | Go to article overview
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'How Fiction Works'

Shaer, Matt, The Christian Science Monitor

In 1858, John Ruskin wrote his "Aspects of Drawing," a 244-page primer on modern form. Rare among Victorian texts, "Aspects" eschewed grandiose analysis. Instead it stripped art to a series of straight lines, from object (reality) to art (reality translated and then illuminated) - from "technique to the world."

This last clause belongs to James Wood, and he uses it to launch his own formal inquiry, How Fiction Works. Ruskin, Wood argues, had it right: he cast "a critic's eye over the business of creation." His authority came not "from his own technique as a draftsman ... but from what his eye has seen and how well, and his ability to transmit that vision into prose."

Wood, a staff writer at The New Yorker and former chief literary critic at the Guardian and The New Republic, is often called America's preeminent literary critic. In "How Fiction Works," Wood attempts to do for literature what Ruskin did for drawing: distill the messy alchemy of art into a single, coherent system.

And for the most part - through 10 chapters, stacked loosely atop one other, and spilling over at the margins with erudition - he succeeds, spectacularly.

Drawing on his own vast fund of reading, Wood seeks out those moments when novelists come closest to achieving "lifeness" - or at least "the nearest thing to life" - in their art. One of the great pleasures in reading "How Fiction Works" comes from savoring the carefully selected passages that Wood chooses to illustrate his points.

Among these: Henry James letting his adolescent narrator unconsciously parrot the adults around her in "What Maisie Knew" ("It was on account of these things that mamma got [the governess] for such low pay, really for nothing..."; Chekhov describing an adulterer silently eating a melon for a half hour after an assignation; and Tolstoy noting that a husband's ears suddenly look different to a wife enamoured of another man in "Anna Karenina."

Wood uses this wonderful romp through some telling moments in Western literature to talk about some of the basic building blocks of the novel: narration, detail, character, metaphor, and style.

If this sounds as if this could all get a bit esoteric, well, best to brace yourself. Wood, who is also a lecturer at Harvard, has in many ways written an academic text, one that traffics in established literary theory and history. (Some section titles, taken at random: "Tragic Dilemmas in the Novel"; "Wordsworth in London"; "Flaubert and Selection.")

"How Fiction Works" requires at least a familiarity with the "major" Western texts - an ability to differentiate between Stendhal and Flaubert, Dafoe and James, Dostoyevsky and Nabokov. Here is Wood, for instance, on "The Brothers Karamazov": "Dostoevskian character has at least three layers. On the top layer is the announced motive: Raskolnikov, say, proposes several justifications for his murder of the old woman. The second layer involves unconscious motivation, those strange inversions wherein love turns into hate and guilt expresses itself as poisonous, sickly love.

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