Title: How Fiction Works
Author: James Wood
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.