Tired of Sarah News? Here instead: James Wood on HOW FICTION WORKS

My husband, two children and friends were climbing the unfortunately named South Suicide peak several weeks ago, the day my much-anticipated copy of James Wood’s HOW FICTION WORKS arrived.

With a bum knee, I didn’t at all mind waiting in the trailhead parking lot at Falls Trail for the mountaineers to come tumbling out of the brush. (It’s one of those 8-hour hikes that requires a car placed at either end of trailheads separated by steep ridges.) I got to read for an over an hour, while eating an ice cream bar. They showed up more or less on time, only bleeding a little. Ah, Alaska summer.
Why all this detail? Just to paint a little picture of the Alaska writer/reader’s life: wilderness in one direction, the best of the urbane world in the other. In this case, that urbane “best” is a book I want to recommend to any fellow fiction-lovers who revel in the nitty-gritty of literary criticism.
I buy just about every book I can find about the writing craft. I’m usually content if I learn just one new thing. Use “telling details,” writing how-to books preach. That will be $14.95, thank you very much.
But what kind, how many, and – now we get beyond a novice level of discussing the craft – what are the roots of various approaches to including detail in realistic fiction? (And what is realism? And how do we convey truth? And how has the novel developed and where is it going next?)
In HOW FICTION WORKS, James Wood writes, “I confess to an ambivalence about detail in fiction. I relish it, consume it, ponder it. Hardly a day goes by in which I don’t remind myself of Bellow’s description of Mr. Rappaport’s cigar: “the white ghost of the leaf with all its veins and its fainter pungency.” But I choke on too much detail, and find that a distinctively post-Flaubertian tradition fetishizes it…”
Wood – a staff writer at The New Yorker, Harvard lecturer, and novelist — goes on to trace the history of the “rise of detail.” He points out that Cervantes and Jane Austen didn’t dwell on visual details. It was Dickens who specialized in “dabbing” even minor characters with just a “little gloss.” It was Flaubert who made a rigorous and even punishing art of exact visual detail. It was 19th century writers in general who created novels that were more “painterly” than novels had ever been before.

Ever think about that particular aesthetic heritage? I hadn’t.

Likewise, Wood helps the reader consider tricky issues of narration, like the gap between character and author (or narrator), with lots of smart examples that make one want to go running to the shelves for books by Henry James, V. S. Naipaul, Nabokov and others.

The New York Times reviewed Wood week before last, but it seemed more like cocktail party banter to me. Sometimes I had trouble telling when the reviewer meant to be damning or praising.

Let this small-town writer be more clear: sitting at a trailhead reading Wood to the music of a nearby Chugach waterfall was a delight, and HOW FICTION WORKS gave me so much to think about that I plan to read it several times.
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