How Fiction Works (2)

So, I promised more writing about HOW FICTION WORKS, and here it is. But first, a photo of the kids in the recycling bin. Why not?

Iphoto (3)‘m writing this while lying on the front lawn — in the sunny, seventy-degree Portland afternoon. This is strange, writing a mini-essay in beautiful weather. But — from time to time — I can roll over onto my back and look up at the sky. It is quite blue and lovely.

This also means that I am racing the Death of My Laptop Battery, which is exciting.

But, in some broad sense, aren’t we all racing the Death of Our Laptop Battery, really?

I checked HOW FICTION WORKS out from the Multnomah County Library. Since I moved to Portland in 2007, I’ve been buying books — mostly at Powells and Broadway Books. But this year my kids have discovered the library. They have been loving it with an ardor that reminds me of my own childhood. And so — I am in the stacks once again. And marveling at the joys of checking out a book. The privacy of it. The small thrill of claiming something — claiming some set of ideas — and taking it with you, out into the world.


1. The lack of books by women among Wood’s exemplary texts. 

11 out of 100 titles in the bibliography were written by women. 89% men. Incredible! And often — structurally — the books by women will serve as illustrations of an auxiliary point. The exception to this seems to be Virginia Woolf — with whom Wood engages in some depth.

This made me think of all the books by women that were critical, crucial, indispensable to my early life as a writer. Yes, Woolf’s Dalloway and To The Lighthouse. But also Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. If I had to pick ten books that had influenced me, as a writer — these five would be on there. And then The House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros. And Fetish Lives, by the Australian Gail Jones. So — that would be seven out of ten.


2. Sea and Sardinia. 

No one is likely to agree with me on this point, maybe. But — in his book about fiction — Wood quotes, at length, from Sea and Sardinia, which is a text by D.H. Lawrence.

It is not, however, fiction.

Lawrence wrote Sea and Sardinia about his trip — together with his wife, Frieda — to Italy. Written in the grand tradition of the English travelogue, the book does have some of Lawrence’s most beautiful prose. I’ve always loved it, however — precisely because it isn’t fiction.

Freed from the thing that seemed to trouble him most as a writer — the melding of philosophical concept to the practical world of the body — Lawrence’s talent is more fully evident. His prose can function purely as a descriptive tool. He focuses on action, for its own sake, and his writing soars, as a result.

Wood uses sections of the prose as exemplars of what prose can do. Which is fine. D.H. Lawrence was a marvelous writer. And Wood unravels precisely how Lawrence uses repetition — echoing repetition — to create the emotional affect of his writing (190-91). It’s a great bit of analysis. I love Wood’s attentive, careful mind.

But Sea and Sardinia isn’t fiction.

3. Free indirect discourse. 

Wood is terrific when he’s describing free indirect discourse. This is the opening part of HOW FICTION WORKS. Wood really unpacks how the writer can break the envelope of consciousness that surrounds his or her characters. How prose can be a gift — a pathway into the mind of another human being. This is an intricate and thoughtful analysis. It made me reflect on my own fictive voice, and its advantages and limitations. In my new fiction, I’ve been working to expand the range of the central narrative principle, and Wood’s passages on free indirect discourse were appealing for this reason.

4. Otherwise

There are so many beautiful sections of this book. What I love is the wrestling with the fictive form — the attention to fiction — the conviction that it can matter in the world. Wood is especially good on the development of the novel; he writes beautifully of Dostoevsky and Flaubert, especially. He’s not as convincing when he’s wrestling with Forster, whose Aspects of the Novel haunts the text — and seems to be a monograph with which Wood has battled extensively.

This is long for this space, now — 740 words and counting. So, I will sign off. Go read HOW FICTION WORKS. Grapple with it for yourself. It’s only been out for seven years. Think in terms of geology. Why not? Ideas are stronger than rocks. That’s what I say.

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