Tag Archives: How Fiction Works

Review: How Fiction Works

How Fiction Works by James Wood

Title:  How Fiction Works
Author:  James Wood
Published: 2018
ISBN: 9781250183927
Publisher: Farrar Strouss Giroux (now MacMillan)
Publisher’s Blurb:  James Wood ranges widely, from Homer to Make Way for Ducklings, from the Bible to John le Carré, and his book is both a study of the techniques of fiction-making and an alternative history of the novel. Playful and profound, How Fiction Works will be enlightening to writers, readers, and anyone else interested in what happens on the page.

Being a reviewer is writing, “This female character isn’t very nice which means she’s not a very good person and that makes it hard to read.”  Being a critical reviewer is writing, “this hard to like character takes everything we know about the anti-hero trope and turns it upside down, to the purpose of saving the Queen from near certain death.”  Knowing how craft works is the difference.

In How Fiction Works, James Wood writes, “… reading for significance is always a negotiation between our excited discovery of the work and our comprehension of the work after the excitements of discover have faded a bit.”  We could have read Goon Squad for the sheer brilliance of the story itself, and left it at that.  A lot of readers have. But because we look for significance in what we read, we cogitated and poked around.

Knowing about the craft of writing allows me to ask the questions which allow me to get beneath the surface of a work.  In working through Goon Squad three times, I found questions I didn’t know to ask, and ways to answer those questions.  Because I am working my way away from Reader Response, and learning to be think critically about a work, I need to know about craft.

When I look for reviews about a product, I look for the ones which tell me what the craftsmanship is like.  “This insta-pot is put together well. The display is easy to read, the settings are easy to set, the lid closes tightly, and the removable pot makes it easy to clean up.”  As opposed to, “I love this insta-pot and would buy again.” I’m not buying an appliance based on the last review, unless I know the person making the recommendation well.

Thinking critically about a book is recognizing how the book was written, the choices an author made to tell the story, and being able to write a more informed review.  As to credentials, people will trust reviewers who know about the craft of writing more than the one who only wants to recap and express fondness, or dislike, for the author and the genre.

When I review a book critically, I want to make it clear that I know something about the writer’s craft, and that I have some understanding of how craft serves the story.  I want my own writing to reflect that I know something about using craft and strive for thoughtful, well-crafted reviews. Having this knowledge leads to being included in conversations which go deeply, and being taken seriously enough to be invited again.

Instead of saying to myself, “Oh I know I can do better than that,” when I read reviews, I now look for reviews which go deeper and encourage myself to strive for that level of writing.  For me, it’s the difference between saying “I loved this book and if you love zombies you will too,” and, “Diana Rowland’s White Trash Zombie series gives us a look at how her protagonist gains agency and self-esteem through being turned into a zombie and finding a power structure which supports her in her growth.”

“124 was spiteful,” is one of the best opening lines of a book ever.  Reader response would figure out that 124 was an address and the house at that address was haunted, and they might leave it at that.  Critical review will delve deeper, “Why is the ghost at 124 spiteful? What is it doing to tell us, the reader, why it’s behaving in such a way?  Why did Toni Morrison use the word spiteful instead of something like angry?” Even further a critical reviewer would be able to point to other examples of this deliberate type of disorientation in storytelling.  Once we learn about the craft, we can find the patterns in other stories and discuss why disorientation is good craft. We also learn when it’s been applied well and when it doesn’t work. This also gives us credence as reviewers, and provides evidence we speak from authority when writing a critical review.

Knowing about craft elevates the discussion and makes the experience of reading, and writing, richer.  How Fiction Works provided me with more tools with which to think about reading.  Plus it gave me the phrase “flaneurial realism.” to cherish.

Review: 2018 Reading

Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
American Gods by Neil Gaiman
The Geek Feminist Revolution by Karmeron Hurley
The Calculating Stars signature
Binti by Nnedi Okarafor
River Queens by Alexander Watson
How Fiction Works by James Wood
The Queen of Crows by Myke Cole
A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

For the first time in so many years, I’m not in utter misery looking into the New Year.  2019 holds great promise and hope for me. As unexpected as that is to say, it comes as a great relief.  Books and lists are the great constant. The great coping mechanism of all time, making lists. It was like the sun shone only on me the day I realized I could combine the two and keep my sanity.

One blissful weekend in August when I was hanging out with other geeks and nerds who loved what I did my vague dissatisfaction was temporarily banished.  I went to panels about writing, met authors (and a real live astronaut), sat in lines with others and talked about writing. Frequently amused that wherever there was a line, we all had some kind of device out in order to read. My device was dead tree style.

Exhaustion was my companion the entire con, but gods I was happy.  Happy? How could that possibly be? When WorldCon 76 San Jose was over, the sticky film of vague unrest returned.  Barf, I thought (or words to that effect, anyway). Inklings filtered through my overtaxed, hyperalert brain.

When great ideas hit it can feel like a jolt of lightning, adrenaline flowing through my spine.  This idea was quieter. An author I met at WorldCon started posting about teaching writing. And so I asked, “do you have something for me?”  His probing questions finally got me to the bottom of my unrest. “I want to learn to read and write about books better.”

And that’s how I found a mentor, and made the last quarter of 2018  happy. Best decision of my life ever. It’s not just the reading and writing which have evolved.  Unexpected personal growth came at me like sunshine filtered through open doors. Even on the hardest of hard days when I think I can’t even get out of bed, and the writing is like carving bricks of granite with my bare hands, I know I’ll be good.  Discovering the weird joys of LitCrit have given me a new dimension of meaning.

It is nearly impossible to pick just a few great books from 2018, but here’s my attempt at defining the seminal books for me.

2018 Books by the Numbers:

  • 68 read
  • 20,382 pages
  • 26 unique publication years
  • 40 unique author names
    • 19 female authors
    • 23 male authors
    • 26 new to me authors
  • 98 books new to the stacks
    • 48 new to the stacks read
    • 7 new to the stacks Pearl Ruled

Favorite Reads

The Handmaid’s Tale by Atwood, Margaret
Even more relevant today than when first published, Atwood’s description of a dystopian, Puritanical society with no agency for women chills.  My review will focus on the use of Scripture as justification.
The Armored Saint by Cole, Myke
The Queen of Crows by Cole, Myke
Heloise is the hero we need now.  Tight, intricate, suspenseful story about a young woman leading the uprising against the religious order in charge.  Book 3, The Killing Light, comes out in 2019.
A Visit From the Goon Squad by Egan, Jennifer
Freakin’ brilliant.  We spent a month on it, I read it three times.  Don’t let the non-linear style throw you off. Egan tells a hell of a story.
American Gods by Gaiman, Neil
What happens when Old Gods realize they’re being squeezed out by the New Gods?  Just as fantastic on the second read.
My Journey in Creative Reading by Gallowglas, M. Todd
Don’t know how to review this book since he’s also my mentor.  Every bit is so good and resonated so deeply I knew I had the right guy.
The Geek Feminist Revolution by Hurley, Kameron
My love letter to Kameron who speaks the truth about being a woman so hard.  I continue to learn a lot from her about feminism and writing. GFR has earned a permanent place on my reference shelf.
The Calculating Stars by Kowal, Mary Robinette
The Fated Sky by Kowal, Mary Robinette
Speaking of feminism … Elma’s a wonderful example of all any human could be; blind spots and social anxiety and all.  Mary Robinette Kowal is as kind and generous as I had hoped. An hour with her and real live astronaut, Kjell Lindgren was more than I’d expected.  Excitedly waiting for two more Lady Astronaut books.
Beloved by Morrison, Toni
Because I am stubborn and refuse to read what “everyone” else is reading, it took an essay in The Methods of Breaking Bad, and some serious prodding from a trusted friend to read Toni Morrison’s classic.  Best opening line ever, “124 was spiteful.”
Binti by Okorafor, Nnedi
Binti: Home by Okorafor, Nnedi
Binti:  The Night Masquerade by Okorafor, Nnedi
Nnedi Okorafor’s brilliant story about a young African woman who breaks tribal taboos to go to university on another planet.  My review will focus on the bigotry Binti encounters on her quest.
River Queens by Watson, Alexander
Alexander Watson’s writing is elegant as he tells the tale of refurbishing a wooden boat and sailing her from Texas to Ohio.  His is the most polished debut I’ve read and I’m forever grateful he asked me to review it.
How Fiction Works by Wood, James
Every writer, every critic, every anyone interested in reading and writing needs to read How Fiction Works.  My review focuses on why critical reviewers should know about craft in order to write better themselves.

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How Fiction Works by James Wood ~ read
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#litcrit

How Fiction Works by James Wood
Literary Theory: A Complete Introduction by Sara Upstone
Genrenauts by Michael R. Undersood
How Literature Works: 50 Key Concepts by John Sutherland