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How Fiction Works


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A deep, practical anatomy of the novel from the strongest ... literary critic we have (New York Review of Books)

About the Author

JAMES WOOD is a staff writer at The New Yorker and a visiting lecturer at Harvard. In addition to How Fiction Works, he is the author of two essay collections, The Broken Estate and The Irresponsible Self, a novel, The Book Against God.


Serious readers of fiction will tackle this informing and enlightening new work with unrestrained relish. A staff writer at The New Yorker, Wood (American literature, Harvard Univ.; The Book Against God) asks all the right questions: What is character, point of view, the value of metaphor and simile, and detail? Is it all artifice or realism, or could it be labeled imaginative truth? His engaging discussion covers narration in all its forms, the impersonal author, the tension that exists between an author's and a character's style, flat vs. round characters, irony, and more. Wood uses excerpts from works by notable authors, from Miguel Cervantes and Jane Austen to Saul Bellow and John Updike, to illustrate his statements with pinpoint precision. Whether he is commenting on a work's weakness or strength, he supports his opinion with reasoned scholarship. Great fiction has what Wood calls "lifeness." Ditto for this book, whose footnotes are as engrossing as the narrative. Highly recommended for public and academic libraries.--Robert Kelly, Fort Wayne Community Schs., IN Copyright 2008 Reed Business Information.

Wood takes aim at E.M. Forster's longtime standard-bearer Aspects of the Novel in this eminently readable and thought-provoking treatise on the ways, whys and hows of writing and reading fiction. Wood addresses many of the usual suspects--plot, character, voice, metaphor--with a palpable passion (he denounces a verb as "pompous" and praises a passage from Sabbath's Theater as "an amazingly blasphemous little melange"), and his inviting voice guides readers gently into a brief discourse on "thisness" and "chosenness," leading up to passages on how to "push out," the "contagion of moralizing niceness" and, most importantly, a new way to discuss characters. Wood dismisses Forster's notions of flat or round characters and suggests that characters be evaluated in terms of "transparencies" and "opacities" determined not by the reader's expectations of how a character may act (as in Forster's formula), but by a character's motivations. Wood, now at the New Yorker and arguably the pre-eminent critic of contemporary English letters, accomplishes his mission of asking "a critic's questions and offer[ing] a writer's answers" with panache. This book is destined to be marked up, dog-eared and cherished. (Aug.) Copyright 2008 Reed Business Information.

"This compelling essay shows just how deeply, sensitively, imaginatively and joyfully he reads" * Scotland on Sunday *
"There aren't many book reviewers whose leaving one magazine to go to work for another would make the headlines. But then there aren't many book reviewers like James Wood" * Sunday Telegraph *
"Luminous... full of top-notch observations from the coal-face" -- D.J. Taylor * Independent on Sunday *
"Enchanting... Witty, concise, and composed with a lovely lightness of touch" * Economist *
"Exceptionally illuminating... brilliantly acute and enticingly widely read work. It should be compulsory reading for anyone in the reviewing trade and committed to memory before aspiring writers put pen to paper. For those who intend to pursue the underrated calling of reading fiction without wishing to add to its ranks, it will not only make reading more pleasurable, but articulate what you may have felt but never been able to express" -- Rosemary Goring * Herald *

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