Unpacking the Novel

Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881), a master of the novel

Though I have no aspiration to write a novel, I am endlessly curious about artists’ creative processes, regardless of medium or genre. So when a novelist recently recommended the book How Fiction Works by Harvard English professor James Wood, I ran with it. For years I have enjoyed Wood’s criticism in New Yorker magazine but had never come across this short book, published in 2008.

Wood’s erudition is astounding. He leads the reader on a tour of literature that begins with Homer, Aristotle and Plato, visits the Bible, Shakespeare and Cervantes, and arrives at the present day. He cites from hundreds of works. How Fiction Works is organized into 123 mostly short sections that feel more like journal entries or pensées than book chapters.

When I was in college some 45 years ago (boy, does that make me feel old) the book Aspects of the Novel (1927) by E. M. Forster was required reading for English majors. Wood’s book is an improved successor to Forster’s. John Ruskin’s little book The Elements of Drawing (1857) also served as a model for Wood. He writes in his preface: “Step by step, Ruskin takes his readers through the processes of creation. His authority comes not from his own technique as a draftsman – he was an accomplished artist but not a greatly gifted one – but from what his eye has seen and how well, and his ability to transmit that vision into prose.” Wood has written one novel, The Book Against God.

Wood deflates Forster’s famous dichotomy of flat (cartoon-like) and round (multi-dimensional) characters, and demonstrates how some flat characters can be more round than ones Forster would call round.

The delight I have found in novels since childhood would have been sufficient reason to enjoy How Fiction Works, but later interests made this book even for appealing. One of those interests stems from envy I and other scriptwriters often harbor against novelists because we are limited to just two ways for revealing our characters – their words and actions. That’s it. Whereas those damned novelists can roam around inside characters’ heads for pages and pages, revealing all kinds of thoughts. They also get to pull pack and narrate from a broad perspective.

I have long been curious about how novelists shift those perspectives. Doing that is a sort of magic trick that novelists and short story writers pull off. Writing in the third person, as most of them do, novelists can zoom in tight to a character, so that we are seeing the world from behind the character’s eyes, and zoom out to present the novel’s world from the throne-on-high perspective of a god-like narrator. This zooming in and out, when done by a deft writer, often occurs without the reader being aware of it.

Wood has now done me the favor of clearing up much that mystery. Which is not to say that I’m prepared to go write a novel (I have far too many plays wanting to be written anyway). Wood’s revelation entails a concept he calls, somewhat awkwardly, “free indirect style.” To share one simple example from the book, in the sentence “Ted watched the orchestra through tears” a character’s behavior is being reported by a relatively omniscient narrator (how reliable can be another matter). But look what happens when one word is added: “Ted watched the orchestra through stupid tears.” Whose thought and word is stupid? It is unlikely an author would call his character stupid for sitting in a concert hall. So whose word is it? Wood tells us, “In a marvelous alchemical transfer, the word now belongs partly to Ted.” Without the reader being conscious of it his perspective has shifted closer to Ted. Wood shows us how free indirect style, in the hands of an expert stylist like Henry James, can enable a reader to inhabit as many as three different perspectives at once.

His close readings of many passages, unpacking layers of syntax, meaning and euphony, provide enormous pleasure. Wood traces the evolution of narrative from Homer to the Bible to Shakespeare to Dostoevsky. David addressing God in the Old Testament is an external exchange, whereas in Crime and Punishment Raskolnikov’s tortured conversations are with himself.

One revelation for me was that Adam Smith (1723-1790), the famous author of Wealth of Nations, which many use too simplistically as an unqualified defense of capitalism, also thought deeply about literature and its moral effects. Wood quotes from Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments: “the source of our fellow-feeling for the misery of others” is mobilized by “changing places in fancy with the sufferer.”

Wood sees the novel’s power to engender empathy as a great virtue. Wood also cites Dr. Johnson’s Preface to Shakespeare: “Imitations produce pain or pleasure, not because they are mistaken for realities, but because they bring realities to mind;” and the 19th century novelist George Eliot: “Art is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot.”

This book is infused as much with Wood’s passion for good literature as with his critical intelligence. While dissecting a paragraph from Henry James, Wood halts to exclaim, “What a piece of writing that is!” Of a line in Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, he confesses “I am consumed by this sentence.”

It’s hard to imagine a novelist writing today without this book being part of their education. Likewise writers and impassioned readers of every genre will find much to savor in How Fiction Works.

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