Executive Times






2008 Book Reviews


How Fiction Works  by James Wood








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James Wood wastes not a single word in his new book, How Fiction Works. The long time critic explores his bookshelves and comments on what has developed in the novel form. While academics may find joy on these pages, average readers will go on a journey led by the Wizard of Oz to learn what’s behind the curtain. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of the chapter titled, “A Brief History of Consciousness,” pp. 139-141:


One reason that Cervantes needs to have Don Quixote accompanied by Sancho Panza on his travels is that the knight must have someone to talk to. When Don Quixote sends Sancho off to search for Dulcinea, and is alone for the first extended period in the novel, he does not think, as we would now understand the term. He speaks out aloud, he soliloquizes.

The novel begins in the theater, and nov­elistic characterization begins when the so­liloquy goes inward. The soliloquy, in turn, has its origins in prayer, as we can see from Greek tragedy, or from Book 5 of The Od­yssey, or from the Psalms, or from David's songs to the Lord in 1 and 2 Samuel. Shake­speare's heroes and heroines still use solilo­quy to invoke the gods, if not quite to pray to them: "Come you spirits / That tend on -mortal thoughts, unsex me here," "Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!" and so on. The actor comes to the front of the stage and speaks his mind to an audience, who is both God above and we spectators in the seats. Nineteenth-century novelists like Charlotte Bronte and Thomas Hardy continued to describe their characters as "soliloquizing" when speaking to themselves.

The novel has changed the art of charac­terization partly by changing who a character is being seen by. Consider three men, each permanently affected by a chance occur­rence: King David in the Old Testament; Macbeth; and Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment. David, strolling on his roof, sees Bathsheba, naked, sunning herself, and is instantly struck with lust. His decision to take her as his lover and wife, and to kill her inconvenient husband, sets in train a series of events that will lead to his downfall and his punishment by God. Macbeth is in­stantly contaminated by the suggestion of the three witches that he kill the king and take his mantle. He, too, is punished—if not explicitly by God, then by "evenhanded justice," and by "pity, like a naked newborn babe." And Raskolnikov, in a story clearly influenced by Shakespeare's play, is simi­larly polluted by an idea—that by killing a miserable pawnbroker, he can vaunt himself over ordinary morality like a Napoleon. He, too, must “accept his punishment,” as Dostoevsky puts it, and be corrected by God.


For some readers, learning how the sausage is made may be disconcerting. For others, it will bring joy. How Fiction Works is a compact presentation that leaves plenty of time to get back to reading novels when finished. Some readers will keep this handy and refer to it while reading a novel, along the lines of, “What was it that Wood said about voice?”


Steve Hopkins, October 20, 2008



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the November 2008 issue of Executive Times


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