There are some writers I turn to when I am unsure what to read and want to experience clear, concise, high quality prose. I don’t want torrential writing, and I don’t want cheeseburger writing. I don’t want to be overwhelmed with genius, or underwhelmed with fantasy tropes or genre conceits. The writers I turn to in these instances are Coetzee, Auster, Kundera, Aira. There are others – those just fell from my mind to my fingers. I like them, I admire their writing, and could only hope one day to write something approaching their level. But, for me, they aren’t Permanent Writers. They are a cool drink of water.
And sometimes that is what I need. Not lately, though. I tried – oh yes. But it didn’t quite work. And so I turn to James Wood’s How Fiction Works, a book which, more or less, explains effective plotting, characterisation, narrative, detail, consciousness, language, dialogue. As according to Mr Wood.
If you do not hew closely to Wood’s touchstone writers, then the book is good, but excessively preachy and prescriptive. If you love Flaubert, Conrad, Lawrence, Henry Green, Saul Bellow, then you are fine. If you don’t, then the book is somewhat problematic.
I have a lot of time for Wood’s theories, and while I don’t think free indirect style is the greatest offering literature can make to the world, there’s something to what he says. The concept of a third person narrator who is able to be “infected” by the force and personality of the characters is quite something, and if anyone is interested in reading wonderful and clear examples of this, then please, read Bellow – anything, but Herzog or Seize the Day or Mr. Sammler’s Planet would be the best examples. Bellow is a tremendous, epochal writer, and his best books have held up for decades now.
But what of the other kinds of writing? They exist, and they are true and good. Woods knows it, and recognises various other writers, but really, he is about free indirect style. So, this book is not “How Fiction Works” but “How Free Indirect Style Works”. And that’s fine.
He is exceptionally readable, and very pleasant company to keep on a quiet afternoon. His passion for literature is true, and clear, and encouraging, and he makes you want to read more, and think more, and pay attention to everything.
I read Woods because I wanted to read about reading, and it worked perfectly. I don’t say this to dismiss him as a read-when-you-need-invigorating-but-otherwise-don’t-bother kind of writer, but he helped me in this time, and I am thankful for that.
The Books, Read page contains a list of all of the books I have read over the years.