Books for Writers: “How Fiction Works”

I’m re-reading the critic James Wood’s excellent, readable little book of this title. Every writer should have a copy. There’s a superb account of the way narrative point of view progressed from the ancients (“This happened. Then he did this. Then this happened.”) to the full flowering of free indirect style – from Jane Austen to Flaubert’s flaneur to Henry Green and Virginia Woolf and V.S. Naipaul. From a beautiful passage in Woolf’s To the Lighthouse:

They paused. He wished Andrew could be induced to work harder. He would lose every chance of a scholarship if he didn’t. “Oh, scholarships!” she said. Mr. Ramsey thought her foolish for saying that, about a serious thing, like a scholarship. He should be very proud of Andrew if he got a scholarship, he said. She would be just as proud of him if he didn’t, she answered.

(There’s also an acute analysis of a passage from John Updike, doing something similar, only lazily and badly.)

And then on to the vexed matter of plot. I come back to a wonderful put-down of Thomas Pynchon …

The massive turbines of the incessant story-making produce so much noise that no one can be heard.

… and realize now that the context of this remark is really an acute observation about plot generally, and whether a novel(ist) is genuinely interested in people – in successfully evoking the real experience of real people – or only, as in so much genre fiction, in keeping the turbines moving. Or, to switch metaphors, in shifting the essentially characterless “characters” around the plot’s chessboard in the service of a satisfying checkmate.

The upstart novel evoked horror in “serious writers” of the C.18th, like Adam Smith. Wood suggests that this was well-justified, in a sense, because much of the early novel up to Austen really is one bit of entertaining caricature / picaresque after another – and the sting in the tail is that modern genre fiction (visual as well as purely verbal) retains this eighteenth-century quality. As far as I can see, virtually all commercially successful writers are caricaturist-plotters, just like all commercial movie makers. It’s what people want. And (Wood is good on this too) such writers nearly all accept that this forces you to give readers something else they depressingly want, Heroes fighting Villains. (John le Carré is one interesting partial exception.)

One main value of free indirect style done well – of truly getting the reader inside the character’s head – is that it makes possible the evocation of real, as opposed to fantasy, experience: in real experience, the Heroes and the Villains are competing regions of the same self, at war inside the same head.

(Woolf is raised on the English Victorian novel. In the early 1920s, she reads Constance Garnet’s new translations of Russian writers, especially Dostoevsky. “Leonard darling, have you read this? Holy shit …”)

I suppose fantasy experience, in which we (or the Hero we identify with) defeat the Villain, will always be more popular. But as a writer, if you’re interested in real people, the desire is always to surprise the reader by making the actual inner landscape more interesting.

The great Aussie poet Les Murray says something along these lines that resonates with me:

I did dabble in short stories very early on, but I hated the plotting. Plots are too akin to fates, but even cheaper and nastier, being human attempts to manufacture fate, to simulate it.

On the other hand …
The mention of fates makes me think of the recent film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. I’ll leave aside what I think is a descent into B- melodrama about 3/4 of the way in: other than that, the film is very strong, precisely because Martin McDonagh’s script does relatively little with “interiority” and presents a conflict of elemental, almost Euripedean simplicity. There really is a (simple) plot here, and everything hinges on it, and it comes about not because the characters have a complex interior life but – on the contrary – because in different ways all of them are monomaniacs; unthinking ids; boneheads.
Just like Medea! Just like us!
Anyway, read the book. A quick cruise through the index reminds me that, aside from the authors mentioned here, it has interesting asides on the technique of Amis, Auden, Balzac, Baudelaire, Bellow, Bolaño …