How Fiction Works by James Woods is a provocative and accessible musing for writers and readers of prose—and it offers excellent insights whether the interest is fiction or nonfiction. Woods cites passages from the Western Canon, including Dostoevsky, Faulkner, Flaubert, Joyce, Kafka, Mann, Saramago, and Woolf, among many others, to get to the essence of narration, character, plot, detail, and dialogue.
Woods’s references to other master novelists and critics, and even painters and police chiefs, make for engaging reading on a topic that transforms the casual reader to the well informed one. Among the best moments from the author himself are these:
- The writer’s job is to become, to impersonate what he describes, even when the subject itself is debased, vulgar, boring (33).
- Rich and daring prose avails itself of harmony and dissonance by being able to move in and out (196).
- The writer’s—or critic’s, or reader’s—task is then to search for the irreducible, the superfluous, the margin of gratuity, the element in a style—in any style—which cannot be easily reproduced and reduced (233).
- Realism, seen broadly as truthfulness to the way things are, cannot be mere verisimilitude, cannot be mere lifelikeness, or lifesameness, but what I must call lifeness: life on the page, life brought to different life by the highest artistry (247).