Monday, August 25, 2008

James Wood's How Fiction Works

Claimed by many to be the best literary critic working in the English language today, a review by James Wood is the first thing I turn to whenever I get a new issue of The New Yorker. He has the ability to easily analyze a work, place it within its current and historical context, and provide a reader with more than enough information to determine whether or not to pick up the work. The internet has been salivating for the release of his new book, a brief study on the art of the novel in the tradition of Kundera and E.M. Forster called How Fiction Works.

Broken into small, numbered sections, Wood provides a wealth of information on topics ranging fr
om narration to characterization. I was especially intrigued by his study of the reliability of different forms of narration, and his christening of third person limited point of view ‘free indirect style.’ He returns to this again and again, doing what any good writer can do: make you se something familiar in a new and exciting way.

Yet at times I found Wood’s arguments difficult to penetrate. At the bottom of my stomach I had that rumble of anxiety one gets when they feel they are the dumbest person in the room. Armed with such overwhelming evidence for his points, I never felt like I could make a decent argument in opposition when I disagreed with him, even as I had the inclination that he was cherry-picking his sources, so to speak. He often uses works such as Nabakov’s Pnin and anything by Proust to make his points, works that the average reader likely hasn’t tackled (I haven’t).

I fail to understand why one who possesses such insight into the workings of contemporary literature relied so much early modern works to make his points. I suppose his arguments are a bit more convincing when he refers to Madame Bovary on every third page, but using a fairly recent novel as a primary example once in a while made have made the book more accessible to those not heavily schooled in literature.

There is a reason that most of us haven't read the complete works of George Eliot and other such books: they are a bit dense and hard to get into. By using such examples throughout his text, Wood has made his own study hard to penetrate as well. How Fiction Works can be a fascinating study, but only if you have the knowledge and wherewithal to soldier through.

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