The Magazine

His Novel Idea

The point of good fiction is not theory but storytelling.

Jan 26, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 18 • By EDWIN M. YODER JR.
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

How Fiction Works

by James Wood

Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 288 pp., $24

How-to books about writing or reading fiction are usually disappointing, and for good reason: You can no more learn how to write a convincing tale by reading Tolstoy than you can learn to race a bicycle by reading books about the Tour de France. Nor will you shape yourself into an ace critic by reading Edmund Wilson or
F.R. Leavis, though their essays may help.

That said, useful books about reading do come along approximately every blue moon--for instance, the late Wayne Booth's Rhetoric of Fiction and E.M. Forster's older but ever amusing Aspects of the Novel. James Wood's How Fiction Works may be measured, then, against a handful of precursors and in certain ways it stands up. It is literate, subtle, engaging, and free of lit crit fads (the odious use of "privilege" as a transitive verb, as in "NOW privileges women" occurs only once).

Wood's title, unfortunately, suggests some sort of motorist's manual, with diagrams of gizmos under the hood, literary equivalents of carburetors and valves; but his approach is humanistic. He and I may disagree about whether "waves" ruffle the body of water into which Icarus falls in the Brueghel painting that inspired Auden's poem "Musée des Beaux-Arts" and, as well, what the Russian writers mean by ostranenie or "defamiliarization." But those are details.

Wood's favorite gizmo in fictional technique is "free indirect discourse," a narrative form that he associates primarily with Flaubert. It features the character-observer's idiomatic voice without naming that observer. If a storyteller writes, without telling you whose thought it is but leaving no doubt, "By God, he was going to shut her rattling mouth if it was the last thing he ever did," free indirect discourse has been committed. You hear someone's identifiable voice. And to what purpose?

Wood writes as if he believes that this mode of storytelling may have been the most important breakthrough in narrative technique since the ancient Egyptians began decorating royal tombs with pictorial chronicles. He elaborates accordingly at some length.

For me, however, the main byproduct of Wood's book was a flood of memories of teaching courses and seminars in the 1990s at Washington and Lee University. I assert no claim that my experience was unique, or even exceptional, but it was distinctive; and in the process of being an amateur professor there for 10 years, I probably learned more about how fiction works than my students.

I certainly recall the day when I tried to explain free indirect discourse. It is easier to define it than to say why a narrator would choose to thrust himself into the consciousness of his character, rather than simply quote or cite him by name--why, instead of writing, "Fred looked from his hotel window and saw a freight train dragging itself across the distant landscape," he might write: "In the distance a freight train crawled tediously past." That adverb "tediously" tells you how Fred felt about the train and you knew to begin with that it was he who was looking, a bit impatiently, out of the window. Wood is right in saying that it has to do with the increasing exploration of human consciousness, featuring interiority of characterization.

Like all virtuous readers, Wood is a fan of Chekhov, as am I. It is to some degree an acquired taste. When I began teaching 19th-century French and Russian writers in a course called "European fiction in translation," my longstanding favorites were Tolstoy and Turgenev, with Balzac and Flaubert close behind. But the more I read Chekhov the more I admired his power of telling tales by implication.

Wood speaks glowingly of "The Lady With the Little Dog," one of Chekhov's masterpieces. The story begins with a casual seduction in a Crimean resort. A practiced seducer hits on his target by petting her little dog in a seaside cafe, but the story develops complications when this roué discovers that the woman has turned his world upside down and that meeting her was the great event of his life.

Chekhov neither moralizes nor editorializes, and his stories often begin and end at arbitrary points of time, as if life were a long loaf that one slices here and there at random, as if blindfolded. But his characters are firmly and humanely judged, and the theme is always clear. As my relish for Chekhov grew, so did that of the students who, to my astonishment, even began to rank Chekhov above Tolstoy in their end-of-term surveys.

But if you infer from this that students can be pushed or lured into sharing a teacher's preferences, think again. There was one great European writer, if only one, for whom my enthusiasm proved incommunicable, Thomas Mann. Mann's great novels, especially The Magic Mountain (1924), were landmarks for readers who came of age, as I did, in the 1950s. But when I tried to teach that epic novel 40 years later, it was beyond the reach of even diligent students, perhaps because grasping the dialectic between the humanist Settembrini and the reactionary cynic Herr Naphtha requires a sophistication in the history of Western ideas that no longer exists.

Mann posed other difficulties. His brilliant novella, "Death in Venice," which for me ranks with Tolstoy's best at the top of that form, so utterly spooks young American males, with their macho obsessions, that they seal off all human sympathy with the protagonist, Gustav Aschenbach. Aschenbach is an honored and distinguished writer, on vacation in wicked old Venice, who becomes infatuated with a beautiful boy. That homoerotic infatuation costs him his dignity and self-restraint; and to prolong his voyeuristic contemplation of the boy he declines to warn the boy's mother, also vacationing with her children at the same fashionable hotel, of an approaching cholera epidemic. The female students were at ease with poor old Aschenbach, but the boys tended to view the fallen literary man, despite his classical depth, as a predatory pedophile and no more.

One day I tried a trick. I wrote an alternative ending, in which Aschenbach's stern old father appears to him in a vision and shames him into warning the mother to gather her endangered children (including the beautiful youth) and flee the impending epidemic. A young man who'd been much disturbed by the story thought my ending was terrific, brilliant. Who had written it? he asked. I said: Never mind who wrote it, what I want you to see is that it turns a tragedy of sensibility into a maudlin soap opera. It was no sale; the boys in the back row merely pulled their baseball caps lower over their blushing faces. That was the last time I taught "Death in Venice." Mann wasn't a total washout, however. We did better with Buddenbrooks, the author's semi-autobiographical novel of a high bourgeois family's decline.

It was pleasant to find that college students could read difficult writers with appreciation and enjoyment, including James, Faulkner, Proust, and Joyce--notwithstanding the widespread superstition that all four are prohibitively difficult. And there were rewarding comic moments. In Joyce's Ulysses, which I taught in a six-week spring term (I've never worked harder), there is an amusing reference to the Nelson monument in Dublin (later blown up by the IRA). Joyce describes the great English admiral as a "one-handled adulterer." One student asked if it was an allusion to masturbation. The instructor was able to explain, fortunately, that Lord Nelson had lost an arm in a naval battle and had had a famous affair with Lady Hamilton: thus Joyce's clever tag, one-handled adulterer.

Wood's guides to fiction may, with luck, help turn back the tide of bad teaching that often begins with the saturation of English departments in esoteric literary theory, with its obscurantist dogmas. As Wood says more than once, the point of reading good fiction--along with the fun of watching the moves of accomplished narrators, as one does the sliders and knucklers of a great pitcher--is that it acquaints us with worlds, people of all sorts and conditions, that we may otherwise be too provincial or green to know. It cultivates our sensibilities; and in the shallow and vulgar world of American pop culture, young sensibilities need cultivating.

Wood will not supplant Booth or Forster. But How Fiction Works is exceptional. And for anyone who's tried to hammer a few tips on reading into hard but willing heads, it's a feast of remembrance.

Edwin M. Yoder Jr. is the author, most recently, of Lions at Lamb House.