How Fiction Works by James Wood

Novelists should thank Flaubert the way poets thank spring:  it all begins again with him.”

This is a wonderful sentence and wonderfully reassuring to an attentive, eager, self-educated reader of novels, i.e. myself, seeking to enrich her appreciation of fiction.  Wood proves himself an excellent guide, knowledgeable and witty, widely read and articulate in analysis.  He asks a critic’s questions – is realism real, how does point of view work, why do we love to read? – and offers answers from his work as a writer and a lifetime of reading.

Flaubertian realism, like most fiction, is both lifelike and artificial.  It is lifelike because detail really does hit us…in a tattoo of randomness….The artifice lies in the selection of detail.  In life, we can swivel our heads and eyes, but in fact we are like helpless cameras.  We have a wide lens, and must take in whatever comes before us.  Our memory selects for us, but not much like the way literary narrative selects.  Our memories are aesthetically untalented.

Realism, seen broadly as truthfulness to the way things are, cannot be mere verisimilitude, cannot be mere lifelikeness, or life-sameness, but what I must call “lifeness”: life on the page, life brought to different life by the highest artistry.

What James calls “the firm ground of fiction, through which indeed there curled the blue river of truth.” … 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.


Author: abookwomansholiday

The perfect holiday for a lifelong reader is one with a stack of books and few distractions. Retiring after three decades as a bookseller, I look forward to reading my way through the stacks and shelves and lists of books waiting for me. This blog will be something of a grab bag or commonplace book of reviews, quotations, notes on the history of books, the contemporary book trade, and anything connected with books and language. Reading is a great pleasure. Thinking and talking about books multiplies and intensifies that pleasure.

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