Wednesday, April 22, 2009

How Fiction Works by James Wood

This fascinating little volume will require many reads to absorb all the information contained in the 123 short essays on various aspects of writing fiction. At first, I had considered this as a text for my creative writing class, but now, I think not. I asked how many had read Madame Bovary, and none had. They need to read more – much, much more – before tackling this valuable book.

Wood presumes his reader has read world literature widely. He provides an extensive bibliography listed by date of publication. The 98 selections are eclectic and fascinating. He begins with Cervantes and the King James Bible then runs all the way through to Updike’s last novel, Terrorist. Pynchon, Saramago, Joyce, Kafka, Austen, the Bront√ęs, Stendahl, Bellow, Nabokov, Roth (Joseph and Philip), Chekhov, Henry Green, and many, many others of my favorites. Alas, no Patrick White.

I started underlining the best passages, but I found nearly every essay had a memorable line or two. This example discusses Madame Bovary:

“Novelists should thank Flaubert the way poets thank spring: it all begins again with him. There really is a time before Flaubert and a time after him. Flaubert decisively established what most readers and writers think of as modernist narration, and his is almost too familiar to be visible. We hardly remark of good prose that it favors the telling and brilliant detail; that it privileges a high degree of visual noticing; that it maintains an unsentimental composure and knows how to withdraw, like a good valet, from superfluous commentary; that it judges good and bad neutrally; that it seeks out truth, even at the cost of repelling us; and that the author’s fingerprints on all this are, paradoxically, traceable but not visible. You can find some of this in Defoe or Austen or Balzac, but not all of it until Flaubert.” (39)

I think I will add this to my desert island shelf for the future and my nightstand for occasional browsing before bed. It IS that kind of book. 5 stars

--Chiron, 4/22/09

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