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How Fiction Works

James Wood, Author
James Wood, Author . Farrar, Straus & Giroux $22 (265p) ISBN 978-0-374-17340-1
Reviewed on: 04/21/2008
Release date: 07/01/2008
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Wood takes aim at E.M. Forster’s longtime standard-bearer Aspects of the Novel in this eminently readable and thought-provoking treatise on the ways, whys and hows of writing and reading fiction. Wood addresses many of the usual suspects—plot, character, voice, metaphor—with a palpable passion (he denounces a verb as “pompous” and praises a passage from Sabbath’s Theater as “an amazingly blasphemous little mélange”), and his inviting voice guides readers gently into a brief discourse on “thisness” and “chosenness,” leading up to passages on how to “push out,” the “contagion of moralizing niceness” and, most importantly, a new way to discuss characters. Wood dismisses Forster’s notions of flat or round characters and suggests that characters be evaluated in terms of “transparencies” and “opacities” determined not by the reader’s expectations of how a character may act (as in Forster’s formula), but by a character’s motivations. Wood, now at the New Yorker and arguably the pre-eminent critic of contemporary English letters, accomplishes his mission of asking “a critic’s questions and offer[ing] a writer’s answers” with panache. This book is destined to be marked up, dog-eared and cherished. (Aug.)

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