15 February 2008

James Wood Needs a Blog

I've just received my copy of James Wood's new book: How Fiction Works. It's out in England, but not the U.S. yet, so I ordered it on amazon.uk.

Try as I might, I couldn't find a James Wood blog on the internets (you know, that series of tubes...) so I will be posting some of my responses to the book as a fiction writer as I work my way through it. You might find more of the same over at Mark Sarvas's excellent litblog: The Elegant Variation.

I will say this, I think Wood starts his book at just the right place; one of the first and most important decisions a writer has to make concerns the point of view of the story. All serious novelists struggle with it. Many do a draft in one POV, then re-write in another. Thus, Wood's first chapter is called "Narrating" and addresses this crucial early step in the writing process. I'm sure he agonized over how and where to start his book. I think he got it just right.

He argues for the primacy of what he calls the "free indirect style", or what others refer to as "close third person POV". Writers often say it's like a little homunculus (or angel) hovering over the shoulder of whichever character predominates the scene. The viewpoint then shifts freely from character to character throughout the book. Wood gives a convincing argument for the obsolescence of the so-called omniscient POV as a relic of a by-gone era (though it seems there's a place for an ironic omniscient POV after the work of Donald Barthelme). An "antique cheat" he calls it, borrowing a phrase from Sebald. He does not so persuasively dismiss the first-person POV; he spends only one paragraph on the so-called unreliable narrator, but he nails that oftentimes confusing concept.

One shortcoming of this first chapter is Wood's failure to distinguish between narrative in general and narrative as a specific technique of fiction-writing. To wit: there are several ways to tell a story—through dialogue and action or through narrative. On this score, you might find a story told in the form: "John spent the next three years in prison. The day he got out he went to the nearest WalMart and bought a gun. He went home and stared at the gun until evening. Then, when night fell, he took his new gun, loaded it, and went to his ex-wife's house and shot the man who'd stolen her and had him sent away." That is straight narrative. In Forster's and MFA terms, it is 'telling' not 'showing.' Narrative is a way of telling a story by condensing time and has its effective uses—though what those are you won't learn from Wood.

The same story, of course, could be told quite differently and at greater length by focusing more closely on our protagonist's daily routines, say, in jail. Showing him getting his bus token as he leaves, his wobbly knees as he climbs on the bus and heads away from the prison and into a new and frightening world of freedom. His voice quivers as he asks the bus driver how to get to the nearest WalMart. Through his eyes, we see the overflowing shelves of toys and cheap clothes and appliances and useless bric-a-brac in the giant warehouse-like store and we start to feel how much like a prison this icon of consumer culture seems until, with him, we find ourselves at the gun counter. The whole gun purchase could be comic or tragic as the clerk is shown to be incompetent in not doing a background check and our ex-con a slick, motivated operator with a deft way of avoiding direct questions, etc., etc. Much, if not all, of this could and should be shown through dialogue and action as opposed to narrative (strictly speaking). It is a more specific, closer, and more detailed technique.

I believe there is a good answer to the question of when and how to use narration in the specific sense in writing fiction (witness, e.g.. One Hundred Years of Solitude), but I do not feel Wood has given it, choosing to focus instead on narrative in the broader sense to include dialogue and action.

More to come as I read further.

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