This slim volume has all the joy and excitement you will ever need to become a reader.
Just because we all learn to read and write, that doesn’t mean we continue to practice these skills well after our last term paper has been graded. The theories and structures of reading and writing tend to go the way of algebraic formulae when left unutilized. Storytelling and literature have histories as ancient as civilizations that show the constant emergence and codification of different forms until they grew stale and were reinvented by different literary movements. We all learned this because this knowledge is part of our cultural heritage, but reclaiming old knowledge feels intimidating once you only hear it in whispers. Solving for x might feel like an easier mission than taking on Don Quixote if your rationale for reading Cervantes’ master work is that someone deemed it great and you’re supposed to read it. But what are the parameters for greatness? Ten years ago, New Yorker fiction critic James Wood published How Fiction Works to remind us of the answer to that question. It is a primer created with the lofty ambition to explain to us why we read.
The last time you heard such a proposition it was likely from the pedantic English professor who assigned you a massive volume of literary theory that put you off reading entirely. Wood’s goal is to remove that voice from your mind and the immediate exhaustion that overcomes you at the thought of tackling literature. He is the passionate lecturer you wish inspired you to read challenging material, critique those words and bring your ideas to your fellows for rigorous consideration. He is a champion of the learned while openly confrontational with the sort of snobbery and intellectual posturing that cordons fiction off as some elite pursuit.
How Fiction Works is more a personal essay framed within chapters of different aspects of fiction like “Narrating,” “Character” and “Form.” It’s not exactly stream-of-consciousness, but the short numbered paragraphs that contain Wood’s meandering thoughts about the topic give it a sense of improvisation, less lecture and more dinner party conversation with a savant whose infectious passion inspires you to partake in the word.
How does fiction work? The answer contains multitudes. While we are currently inundated by redemption arcs and three act structures in both fiction and nonfiction narratives, there is no one form of fiction. There are traditions that are highlighted by the chapter headings, but different eras put different values on different things to interrogate reality, and Wood’s goal is to examine those values. “The idea isn’t to intimidate, but to show and show and show; to honor the idea of criticism as, above all, the art of passionate re-description; to say to the reader, again and again, ‘Here! Look! It’s like this.’”
This slim volume, the size of a quality New Testament, is Comparative Literature MA that fits in your pocket. It is tempting to say that Wood is trying to demystify literature for a lay audience, but the opposite is true. This is an attempt to mystify the reader with the metaphysical creation of literature. Each writer worthy of this conversation constructed realities and taught generations of readers how to engage with those realities. These are seminal works that asked questions of the eras of their creation and those questions continue to perpetuate: “In the novel, we can see the self better than any literary form has yet allowed; but it is not going too far to say that the self is driven mad by being so invisibly scrutinized.”
Wood posits that the literature that survives matters because it walls off something essential about the human experience and forces us to confront it due to that extraction. So Dostoevsky asks dark questions about human nature and the pursuit of justice in Notes from the Underground and Jane Austen whimsically examines gender disparity in Pride and Prejudice. These were novels of their moment, but their realities still affect us today. Formalist, modernist, post-modernist, the form matters less than the interrogation of reality. As Wood says, fiction offers us something we lack in our own lives, the power “to reflect on the form and direction of our existence.” The form is the vessel that makes space for our universal questions.
How Fiction Works has become something of a reluctant textbook. To the surprise of its author the book has found its way to classrooms, which was never Wood’s intent. He was trying to write a book that he hadn’t seen before, a primer to catalyze a discourse. Instead, he created something essential. We read because it remains part of our tradition, a somewhat passive exercise in communication trimmed to the level of our attention span. We read fiction because someone introduces us to the empathic possibilities of a written story. We read fiction because we are inspired by someone who can escort into the tradition beyond the simple plot and characters we see. This volume has all the joy and excitement you will ever need to become a reader. It is a book to return to for the magic you missed on your last read.