It keeps surprising me that whenever I go looking for a book on writing, it’s much less a ‘how-to’ and much more a literary criticism of the Greats. This isn’t a bad thing, it’s just not what one expects when selecting a book called “How Fiction Works.” But Wood isn’t interested in telling his reader to go find a pen, write some words down and assess if they’re any good based on certain literary principles. Instead he presents us with what’s out there in the literary world and looks at it not for it’s entertainment value or likability (even though he’s very open about his own emotional reactions to these books), but for the author’s intent in writing them.
Wood has created a philosophy on the act of writing rather than a step-by-step guide on how to write the next bestseller. His notes are broken into chapters on narration, dialogue, detail, and language, intermingled with essays on literary philosophy and the evolutionary history of the novel. It’s not an easy read, even though Wood’s style is accessible and clear. He close reads on an epic scale, pulling from everything and everywhere, and I personally had a hard time following a few of his theories simply because I hadn’t read the source material. However, he helpfully pulls large quotes for some of the more obscure pieces he references, and these were the passages I loved the best because he presents his argument, gives the quote, and then waxes nostalgic over the language for the better part of a page and you can’t help but be swept along in his love for the way these books are written.
As a predominately genre reader, I’m not one to go for the classics or any capital ‘L’ literature, but Wood’s lovingly enthusiastic philosophy on the art of language and its deployment has made me want to go back and work through the tough language and time barriers of the some the greats to see how they wrote the books we’re still reading hundreds of years later.
When I finished this book, I had a fleeting feeling that it was everything my high school English teachers had tried to make me see, and it may be twenty years late, but I finally understand.