How Fiction Works by James Wood

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Synopsis

What makes a story a story? What is style? What’s the connection between realism and real life? These are some of the questions James Wood answers in How Fiction Works, the first book-length essay by the preeminent critic of his generation. Ranging widely—from Homer to David Foster Wallace, from What Maisie Knew to Make Way for Ducklings—Wood takes the reader through the basic elements of the art, step by step.

The result is nothing less than a philosophy of the novel—plainspoken, funny, blunt—in the traditions of E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel and Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. It sums up two decades of insight with wit and concision. It will change the way you read.
 

About James Wood

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James Wood is a staff writer at The New Yorker and a visiting lecturer at Harvard University. He is the author of How Fiction Works, as well as two essay collections, The Broken Estate and The Irresponsible Self, and a novel, The Book Against God, all published by FSG.
 
Published July 22, 2008 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 300 pages
Genres: Education & Reference, Literature & Fiction. Non-fiction

Unrated Critic Reviews for How Fiction Works

The New York Times

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In the second of two short prefaces to “How Fiction Works,” an old-fashioned primer on literature that also functions as a timely primer on the art of modest self-marketing, the esteemed critic James Wood reaches out to assure “the common reader” (that good fellow from the club who tries to keep ...

Aug 15 2008 | Read Full Review of How Fiction Works

The Guardian

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How Fiction Works by James Wood 208pp, Jonathan Cape, £16.99 At some point in the past decade, James Wood became the most admired youngish fiction critic working in English.

Feb 16 2008 | Read Full Review of How Fiction Works

The Guardian

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How Fiction Works by James Wood Cape £16.99, pp208 James Wood, once a Guardian book reviewer, is now professor of the practice of literary criticism at Harvard.

Feb 17 2008 | Read Full Review of How Fiction Works

AV Club

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The audacious title of James Wood's How Fiction Works begs for objections, or it would if the literary critic and novelist weren't so persistently, humbly persuasive in explaining his take on how words pull us into a world of their own.

Aug 27 2008 | Read Full Review of How Fiction Works

Christian Science Monitor

Instead it stripped art to a series of straight lines, from object (reality) to art (reality translated and then illuminated) – from “technique to the world.”

Jul 24 2008 | Read Full Review of How Fiction Works

BookPage

Wearing the hat of an enthusiast as well as a critic, James Wood here describes with style and precision the magical process by which fiction lights up our minds.

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Open Letters Monthly

The purpose of fiction, as Wood will ultimately put it, is to put “life on the page,” albeit with the “highest artistry.” The separate chapters of How Fiction Works are aimed at convincing us that this artistry consists of judicious use of metaphors (avoiding the kind of “writing over” of charact...

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New York Magazine

(See below.) Even his own interpretive wit occasionally moves him to exclamatory wonder: “In fact, barometers, you might say, are very good barometers of a certain middling status: Barometers are very good barometers of themselves!” With every new work, Wood seems to inch a little closer, himself...

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New York Magazine

In fact, one of the many ironies that flock around Wood is that it would probably take Wood himself—a world-class praiser who is rarely wrong about authors he loves—to adequately catalogue the many pleasures of reading James Wood.

Aug 03 2008 | Read Full Review of How Fiction Works

Fiction Writers Review

memoir, Greg Schutz, interview, lit and identity, Miles From Nowhere, Nami Mun, novel in stories, Riverhead, short stories, writers on writing Miles from Nowhere: A Conversation with Nami Mun By Greg Schutz Nami Mun’s debut novel, Miles from Now...

Nov 14 2009 | Read Full Review of How Fiction Works

Fiction Writers Review

I am perpetually cold, and it’s especially a problem when I’m writing.

Dec 20 2011 | Read Full Review of How Fiction Works

Fiction Writers Review

When asked about the difficult subject matter of his writing, the short story writer Andre Dubus once said, “I think honest writers write about what bothers them.” Do you agree?

Jan 15 2011 | Read Full Review of How Fiction Works

Fiction Writers Review

“Novelists,” writes the critic James Wood, “should thank Flaubert the way poets thank spring: it all begins again with him.” But in 1857, few were thanking Flaubert, least of all Ernest Pinard, the imperial prosecutor who sought to have Madame Bovary banned: “Who in this book can condemn this wo...

Dec 19 2011 | Read Full Review of How Fiction Works

Fiction Writers Review

There are some great conversations happening about creative writing in these journals, as well as in an online journal about teaching creative writing in the UK called cwteaching.com.10 Some up-and-coming American writers have had essays published there, including Kate Kostelnik;

Feb 10 2011 | Read Full Review of How Fiction Works

Fiction Writers Review

How Fiction Works is simultaneously a gloss on the history of what James Wood calls “modern realist narration” and an encapsulation of much of Wood’s criticism to date.

Feb 11 2009 | Read Full Review of How Fiction Works

Fiction Writers Review

The book has been translated into eleven languages and has received numerous accolades, including: a Guardian Readers’ Pick of 2007, a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers Award, a Best Fiction of 2007 choice by Metro.co.uk, a Best Book of 2007 by both the Financial Times and Publisher’s W...

Dec 31 2008 | Read Full Review of How Fiction Works

Fiction Writers Review

Despite how hackneyed a statement, fiction has the potential to change [...] In his chapter on “Detail,” Wood takes on a standby of Fiction I: the telling detail.

Oct 27 2011 | Read Full Review of How Fiction Works

Fiction Writers Review

A recent graduate [...] In his most recent novel, The Count of Concord, Nicholas Delbanco revives a largely forgotten but fascinating historical figure who was, in his day, an international celebrity: renaissance man Count Rumf...

Dec 20 2008 | Read Full Review of How Fiction Works

Fiction Writers Review

Despite how hackneyed a statement, fiction has the potential to change [...] The chapter/essay of How Fiction Works I found most intriguing was the last one: “Truth, Convention, and Realism”;

Feb 11 2009 | Read Full Review of How Fiction Works

Fiction Writers Review

A quick and public apology: the Wood book was a casualty of frantic packing for my trip to Vermont, but there will be at least one more post (a wrap-up and hopefully prompt for a discussion of POV) once I’m back in New York on Monday.

Jan 03 2009 | Read Full Review of How Fiction Works

Fiction Writers Review

In particular, the chief felt that reading would allow his officers “to discover lives lived with similar commitment,” which would thereby make them “more committed to the values they have pledged to defend” (170).

Dec 21 2008 | Read Full Review of How Fiction Works

Fiction Writers Review

the third-person narration stays close to a little girl’s (Maisie’s) point of view as she recalls going with her governess, Mrs. Wix, to visit the cemetery where the woman’s dead daughter is buried: “Mrs. Wix was as safe as Clara Matilda, who was in heaven and yet, embarrassingly, also in Kensal ...

Jan 03 2009 | Read Full Review of How Fiction Works

Fiction Writers Review

How Fiction Works is simultaneously a gloss on the history of what James Wood calls “modern realist narration” and an encapsulation of much of Wood’s criticism to date.

Dec 16 2008 | Read Full Review of How Fiction Works

Fiction Writers Review

In How Fiction Works, Wood approaches the elusive how behind craft by “ask[ing] a critic’s questions and offer[ing] a writer’s answers.” He explores such mysteries as the distinction between narrative and authorial language in order, in his own words, “to reconnect that technique to the world, a...

Feb 11 2009 | Read Full Review of How Fiction Works

New York Observer

Wood, of course, spent twelve years as The New Republic‘s chief literary critic before abruptly leaving last summer for a staff job at The New Yorker.

Jul 15 2008 | Read Full Review of How Fiction Works

LA Times

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Mar 12 2009 | Read Full Review of How Fiction Works

LA Times

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Its book — Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century — has 600 pages of those ideas.

Jul 26 2008 | Read Full Review of How Fiction Works

M/C Anderson

M/C Reviews Create an account Home Your Account Submit Review Top 10 Main Menu M/C Reviews 'events' 'screens' 'sounds' 'style' 'words' Feature Issues What's On Your Account Send Reviews Statistics To...

Feb 23 2009 | Read Full Review of How Fiction Works

Reason Magazine

(“In Flaubert and his successors we have the sense that the ideal of writing is a procession of strung details, a necklace of noticings, and that this is sometimes an obstruction to seeing, not an aid.”) His long disquisition on character in fiction is as amusingly inconclusive as our understand...

Feb 27 2009 | Read Full Review of How Fiction Works

The Kenyon Review

In so much contemporary realism, not just ‘commercial realism,’ as Wood puts it, some of us find precisely too much ‘descriptive eloquence and slipshod talk,’ not enough vital and reward-bearing ‘main design.’ (This reader, if it’s not too curmudgeonly to say so, tends to encounter more of the la...

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Boston Review

“When we speak of reality, we are usually referring to a cluster of assumptions,” Doniger writes: We do not have a set of precise definitions of reality in our heads—indeed, we usually do not bother to define reality at all—but we somehow assume .

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