How Fiction Works
by James Wood

James Wood has been at the forefront of literary criticism and reviewing for most of this century, and deservedly so. His knowledge of fiction is astounding and his writing brims with energy. Wood also knows intimately, and by association, what it feels like to wear the shoes of the fiction writer. He has having written two novels and is married to the novelist, Claire Messud.


Wood is the man who coined the phrase hysterical realism – referring to oversized books by Zadie Smith, David Foster Wallace, Don Delilo and others, full of heightened action, brimming with dynamic description. His take on these books:


The big contemporary novel is a perpetual-motion machine that appears to have been embarrassed into velocity. It seems to want to abolish stillness, as if ashamed of silence — as it were, a criminal running endless charity marathons. Stories and sub- stories sprout on every page, as these novels continually flourish their glamorous congestion. Inseparable from this culture of permanent storytelling is the pursuit of vitality at all costs. Indeed, vitality is storytelling, as far as these books are concerned.


There is no denying the power of Wood’s acuity on all matters literary; The man has an encyclopaedic knowledge of novels and their characters, past and present. Even so, he has mellowed over the years, pruned back the criticism or buried it in thickets of terminology, the deployment of which we suspect serves to deflect attention from his real opinion about a book. The thickets, together with examples sometimes arcane, serve to wow the public and cow fellow critics.


Back in 2000, Wood was unafraid to lambast writers for central sins. Less so these days; however, glimpses of the feisty critic with urgent missives to deliver still come through. Here is his take on The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, which won the Pulitzer prize and which Michiko Kakutani (the New York Times chief book reviewer for 31 years) compared to Dickens in its greatness.


Its tone, language, and story belong in children’s literature,” wrote critic James Wood, in The New Yorker. ‘… a book stuffed with relentless, far-fetched plotting; cloying stock characters; and an overwrought message tacked on at the end as a plea for seriousness. “Tartt’s consoling message, blared in the book’s final pages, is that what will survive of us is great art, but this seems an anxious compensation, as if Tartt were unconsciously acknowledging that the 2013 ‘Goldfinch’ might not survive the way the 1654 ‘Goldfinch’ has.” Days after she was awarded the Pulitzer, Wood told Vanity Fair, “I think that the rapture with which this novel has been received is further proof of the infantilization of our literary culture: a world in which adults go around reading Harry Potter.


Recently, James Wood has shown a bias for creative non-fiction. This is evident in his promotion of writers like Karl Ove Knausgaard, the Swede who lives in Norway and wrote a five or six volume personal manifesto provocatively, titled, My Struggle. Karl Ove has penned a door-stop soapie of his life in cringing detail. He gets away with melodrama, one suspects, because he comes from a country of stoic, phlegmatic characters who may be thanking their bad boy for actually acting out the way they can only behave in dreams.


Some gems of enlightenment in How Fiction Works include ways to avoid explaining too much, and ways to allow the reader to participate in the flow of the story. Worthwhile chapters in his book focus on the free indirect style and register of language. ‘Ted watched the orchestra through stupid tears.” The word stupid renders this sentence free indirect, for who owns this word – the writer or the character? The writer has conveyed the word to the character who is embarrassed by his crying, so the narrative moves along poised in a charged zone between character and writer, offering an agility unavailable to other viewpoints. We see through a character’s eyes while being encouraged to see more. Hence we have irony, the lifeblood of fiction. At its best, the free indirect style produces sentences that ripple in the space between the writer and the characters, thereby appealing dynamically to the reader.

Moving on to register, Wood points out that high and low diction may exist in the same story, so long as the writer is aware of his choices and uses them for intended effects. ‘Fuck the laudable ideologies’ is a Mickey Sabbath sentence from Phillip Roth’s novel, ‘Sabbath’s Theatre. The sentence is alive in the way it scandalises proper norms with its clash of high and low registers. The style of Roth’s sentences work as style should, to heighten the meaning, and the meaning is all about equalising the different registers.


The Glimmer Train

Edited by Susan Burmeister-Brown and Linda B. Swanson-Davies.


The Glimmer Train is the masthead of one of the leading literary quarterlies in the US – Glimmer Train Stories. This compendium is for inspiration, for the day a rejection slip arrives or for when you go to the literal or figurative pantry and find it barren.

Comprised of interviews with an array of writers on specific craft topics, it’s a book full of sage writing advice. Best not to read it on Kindle for it will lose much of it’s perfect-bound, hard-copy charm, so nice to hold in your hand. The Glimmer Train is a browsing book – good on the coffee table between ‘The Rough Guide to Cult Fiction’ and ‘1001 Books You Have to Read Before You Die’.

The Glimmer Train gave me a magic tip on when best to use dialogue in crafting a story. The writer (I forget who) said ‘when the possibility of change exists.’ Think showdown, think candour, think pivotal truth. Another piece of sage advice came from Robert Olen Butler. He said we must make sure our characters yearn. Lovely. To want deeply is all about motivation, the ticking heart of character. Character in turn is the ticking heart of literary fiction.




Writing in General and The Short Story in Particular.
Rust Hills


I learned the other day that the late Rust Hills – a once-famous editor of ‘Esquire’ – was married to the short story writer, Joy Williams. What a potent literary combination! Joy Williams goes deep into character, yet somehow also leaves ample space for the reader to get involved, to join her in engaging with book people brimming with life. Her stories also radiate a deep disquiet. How she achieves this effect remains a tantalising mystery.

In his introduction to the 1987 revised version of his book, Hills says ‘you have to see everything in a way that’s not just accurate but peculiar – that’s all, just have an originality of perception and utterance.’

He also speaks of fixed action against moving action. The former is all about routine and daily habit. This is the character as he starts out. The latter is plot – this is how the character’s life is disrupted and how he deals with it. The discord of the situation creates suspense and so requires resolution. Until you put a character into action, Hills says, you haven’t got a story.

From here, he launches into a lovely riff on ‘agreement’, maintaining that character and plot are akin to subject and verb in a sentence. The pair must be in agreement. Another of his riffs pertains to viewpoint. We are the heroes of our own stories – no matter if we are an usher at the wedding or the groom. For the usher observing, the groom is secondary. The meaning of events belongs with the usher, his viewpoint is what counts. When you write your novel or story, who will be your viewpoint character, the one moved and changed? Call it Hills Law, Rust audaciously says: ‘the viewpoint character is the character changed by events.’

His chapter on suspense is particularly insightful. He presents three types: mystery which evokes curiosity in the reader; conflict which evokes uncertainty as to outcome; and tension, which evokes anticipation in the reader. The first is resolved by some kind of explanation, the second by a decision, and the third by fulfilment. Curiosity and uncertainty, he points out are not ideal in that they wind up pitting the reader against the writer, whereas tension in a story consists of unresolved matters. The writer sets up an incident to be resolved and then prolongs the resolution. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabrielle Garcia Marquez sets up anticipation in its famous opening sentence. The event referred to – when Colonel Aureliano Buendía is facing the firing squad and thinking about ice – occurs 100 pages in. Until then, readers deliciously anticipate the details of an event they know is coming.

Hills concludes by stressing the parts of a story must work seamlessly together as if they were one.

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