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How Fiction Works

by James Wood (FSG 2008)

And in our own reading lives, every day, we come across that blue river of truth, curling somewhere; we encounter scenes and moments and perfectly placed words in fiction and poetry, in film and drama, which strike us with their truth, which move and sustain us, which shake habit's house to its foundations.

Thus James Wood describes the most vital effect of fiction, while at the same time describing the person for whom fiction will be vital. The passage comes from the penultimate section (122) of How Fiction Works, a marvelous tract that will be of no interest to some readers and barely intelligible to others. The readers in either group will tend to be young: those in the first, frowning disapprovingly at Wood's unabashed acknowledgment of values, because they're still uncomfortable, as young people necessarily are, with the very idea of convention; those in the second, mouths agape, because they haven't got round yet to reading many of the books that Wood discusses. Older persons who have retained the habit of reading, however, will be delighted by How Fiction Works, even if they don't agree with all of the critic's judgments, or even if they would go about the task of answering the title's question in a rather different way. (As, for example, Francine Prose does, in Reading Like a Writer.)

The question of why we enjoy something doesn't come up of its own; usually, it is raised by an encounter with someone who doesn't share our proclivity. Why do I enjoy reading fiction? I don't care! What I do care about is why I don't like reading certain fiction. The list of authors whose work I'm disinclined to explore is dismayingly long. How Fiction Works doesn't help me understand why I don't care for the writers who don't move me, but it does identify what I'm not getting from them. A few sections earlier in this final chapter, Wood cites the author of Victorian Fiction and the Insights of Sympathy.

Brigid Lowe argues that the question of fiction's referentiality — does fiction make true statements about the world? — is the wrong one, because fiction does not ask us to believe things (in a philosophical sense) but to imagine them (in an artistic sense).

There are many things that I don't want to imagine. The chaos of civil unrest, for example. I can barely read about civil wars from the close standpoint of fictional characters. There is a great deal in Flaubert's Éducation sentimentale, from which Wood quotes a passage about Paris during the uprisings of 1848, that repels me so completely — beginning with its hero, Frédéric — that the book overall makes little sense to me. It is probably wrong to speak of repulsion, and closer to the mark to say that I find the growing-pains of young men inexpressibly tedious. The convention of coming-of-age, at least in its late-adolescent, twenty-something phases, is dead for me. In order to get me to read about such young men with interest, you have to fool me into thinking that you're writing about something else, as, say, Dave Eggers does in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.

"Convention itself," Wood writes, "like metaphor itself, is not dead; but always dying." He doesn't tell us why this is so, but of course the reason is that we are always growing. Conventions are the shells that protect us until we outgrow and shed them. To the extent that a writer captures the moment at which a convention becomes more confining than containing, the result will be a more or less ageless work of fiction. That, at any rate, is the explanation that I'll venture for the fact that, as Wood says, "if someone were now to paint in the style of Rembrandt, he would be a third-rate copyist, not an original genius." Wood does not explore the interesting problem of forgery. Forgery is interesting in this context because my pleasure in a novel written nearly two centuries ago by Jane Austen suggests that contemporaneity is not essential. It may be that some conventions die very slowly, and that we are still living with the ones that preoccupied Austen. Or it may be that there are conventions of style so peculiar to individual writers of note that we never tire of them. It's hard to believe that Jane Austen's voice has never been copied, but that's the case. It hasn't.

For as long as I can remember, it has been a commonplace to speak of the novel as a sort of instructional guide for the rising middle class. Certainly that seems to have been the appeal of novels for many readers of the Nineteenth Century. Young ladies of that era — always thought to be the principal consumers of fiction — wanted more than mere romance. They were no longer interested in how love was conducted in Brocéliande; they wanted to read about how other young ladies, placed in recognizable (if somewhat exalted) situations, would experience romance. And they wanted this "realistic" fiction because they needed to know more about the new, intensely bourgeois world in which they found themselves.

That was then. There is no question but that the memoir has replaced the novel as a source of information about the world. In fact, we turn to the memoir and the novel for opposing reasons. We want to learn something new from the memoir. And we want to fiction to prod us to re-imagine the world we already know. And that is how fiction works right now.

How Fiction Works, then, is right to be a slight book, with small pages, large type, and wide margins. It is not a treatise on fiction. It is a handbook for readers today, and I expect that it will seem quaint before too many decades have passed. But insofar as it is "dated," bound to the time and place of its composition, it is as lively as the most confessional diary entry. That's because the actual subject of How Fiction Works is the free indirect style of narration, a technique developed by Flaubert and adopted by serious novelists ever since. Free indirect style, as Wood explains it, confuses the consciousnesses of the character, the writer, and the reader in manner highly conducive to the exercise of the reader's imagination.

Is it the novelist who is noticing these things or the fictional character? In that first passage from Sentimental Education [not the one to which I referred above], is Flaubert doing a bit of nice Parisian scene-setting, with the reader assuming that Frédéric is seeing perhaps a few of the details in the paragraph while Flaubert sees all of them in his mind's eye; or is the entire passage essentially written in loose free indirect style, with the assumption that Frédéric notices everything Flaubert draws our attention to — the unopened newspapers, the women yawning, and so on? Flaubert's innovation was to make this question unnecessary, to so confuse author and flaneur that the reader unconsciously raises Frédéric up to the stylistic level of Flaubert: both must be pretty good, we decide, at noticing things, and we are content to leave it there.

For the time being. It is nothing less than James Wood's decision to "leave it there" that makes How Fiction Works a pricelessly pleasurable book to read. It will not tell you why you enjoy reading fiction, but it will highlight many of the things that you enjoy about reading fiction — and a few things that you don't — and thus intensify the enjoyment. To become aware of something is to begin to say goodbye to it; but many are the goodbyes that take a lifetime to utter. (August 2008)

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