[I took this photo somewhere in the British Isles, summer 2012.]

[I took this photo somewhere in the British Isles, summer 2012. @richardgilbert]

How Fiction Works unveils narrative craft—including memoir’s.

How Fiction Works by James Wood. Picador, 248 pp.

Part 1. The nuances of point of view in storytelling

In any long fiction, Henry James remarked, use of the first-person point of view is barbaric. James may go too far, but his point is worth considering. First person locks us in one character’s mind, locks us to one kind of diction throughout, locks out possibilities of going deeply into various characters’ minds, and so forth.—John Gardner, The Art of Fiction

In an essay for Prime Number, writer Buzz Mauro wryly reports his effort to track down Henry James’s supposed slur, as codified rather astringently by John Gardner—a noted third-person man:

I can find no actual instance of James describing first person as “barbaric,” but he did call it, in the preface to The Ambassadors, “the darkest abyss of romance … when enjoyed on the grand scale” and added that “the first person, in the long piece, is a form foredoomed to looseness.”(3)  Not quite “barbaric,” but quite a condemnation.

Wood-How Fiction Works

Indeed. Ah, lovers’ quarrels.

In How Fiction Works, James Woods argues for omniscience. He first contrasts the alleged barbarity of first-person against W.G. Sebald’s disgust for omniscient narration. Whereas the “uncertainty of the narrator himself” lends credence to first-person, Sebald believes, history has shattered the myth of cohesive worlds and all-seeing authors. To Sebald, omniscient third-person narration is a “kind of cheat,” Wood writes.

Not to Wood. How Fiction Works is a brief for, and a subtle analysis of, omniscience in fiction. Though ostensibly a godlike, distancing method, in practice third-person narration tends to “bend itself around” a point-of-view character.” Wood loves “free indirect style,” also called close third-person, in which characters’ thoughts have been freed of “authorial flagging,” such as “he said to himself” or “he wondered.” The narrative, seemingly less mediated, becomes suffused with a point-of-view character instead of the novelist.

At the same time, this particularized outlook and diction blend with that of the “complicated presence of the author” to achieve a nuanced layering. Simply put, we enter a character’s head, savoring his thoughts and impressions, while also admiring the writer’s skill—and noting her “own” words or phrases. We enjoy signals of writerly perspective and commentary embedded among characters’ feelings. Sometimes we’re not entirely sure who owns a word, Wood points out, and we try to discern, say, whether the author is being sharp or kind toward a character. In any case, we’re aware of the gap between writer and character. And into that created and creative space, irony, the driest humor, flows.

Fittingly, Wood’s great example of free indirect style pinpoints a sentence by Henry James. In What Maisie Knew, James writes about an unloved girl torn between two selfish, divorcing parents. Here Maisie muses on her comforting, vulgar governess, Mrs. Wix, and her lost child, Clara Matilda:

Mrs. Wix was as safe as Clara Matilda, who was in heaven and yet, embarrassingly, also in Kensal Green, where they had been together to see her little huddled grave.

Wood notes that in James’s sentence “genius gathers in one word: ‘embarrassingly’ ”:

The addition of the single adverb takes us deep in Maisie’s confusion, and at that moment we become her—that adverb is passed from James to Maisie, is given to Maisie. We merge with her. Yet, within the same sentence, having briefly merged, we are drawn back: “her little huddled grave.” “Embarrassingly” is a word that Maisie might have used but “huddled” is not. It is Henry James’s word. The sentence pulsates, moves in and out, toward the character and away from her—when we reach “huddled” we are reminded that an author allowed us to merge with his character, that the author’s magniloquent style is the envelope in which this generous contract is carried.


[POV Master: novelist Henry James]

Such layering of perspectives fosters a similar, if usually much more overt, reflective dimension in a memoir or essay. A dual point of view—you then, living; you now, writing—is considered a sin qua non of literary nonfiction. This aspect of narrative seems more subtle in fiction, until I recall Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life and Alison Smith’s Name All the Animals (reviewed). In those exquisite memoirs, authorial distance is signaled through sparing, subtle changes in voice instead of through outright commentary (none in Smith’s case; rare in Wolff’s).

While a strongly dual persona is an aesthetically approved choice in nonfiction—and prudent for any number of other reasons—master writers will break such a “rule.” They’ll get away with it, if only by substituting subtlety in execution for prescriptive heavy-handedness.

[Next: In Part II about How Fiction Works, I consider Wood’s second major narrative element: style and its relationship to point of view.]


  • shirleyhs says:

    Love the close reading of the Henry James passage. Wow.

  • […] via Got perspective? — Richard Gilbert […]

  • Buzz Mauro says:

    Thanks for this great piece, and for quoting me in it! It’s almost as if Wood is saying that free indirect style adds some of the benefits of first person to third, in the same way that some authors add some of the benefits of third to first by allowing their first-person narrators varying degrees of “omniscience,” as I discuss in the essay you quote. I’d love to hear your thoughts on that, and how it might apply to memoir as well as fiction. (By the way, for a great discussion of free indirect style and how far it can go, I highly recommend Hugh Kenner’s book Joyce’s Voices.)

    • Richard says:

      “Wood is saying that free indirect style adds some of the benefits of first person to third”

      You really it nail it here! And I absolutely agree with your analysis of how first-person isn’t always so strict. Usually readers seem to just go with it, the writers among them maybe noticing the broken rule. Thanks for the Kenner cite.

      As for memoir, I’m glad you asked, having felt self-conscious for dragging it in. But it is my expertise, so to speak, and I thought Wood’s implications interesting for memoir. Most memoirs are first-person, of course, but I’ve read interesting departures: for instance Mark Kramer’s House of Prayer No. 2 starts in third person and switches to second. As I wrote about it here, when I touched on it mostly regarding its punctuation back in 2013, Richard seems to hover outside his narrative in some “now” beyond the story, even though he uses present tense (which very much emphasizes the action “then”); this is because although second-person point of view would seem to distance him from the narrative, in an odd way it emphasizes that there’s an author behind the scenes. Plus, he sometimes writes from others’ points of view, as when he imagines his father’s, and that emphasizes the writer at work and his shaping, retrospective view.

      Even in first-person, there’s huge variation in reflective approach, with the memoirs I cite in this post at the opposite extreme from, say, John Updike in Self-Consciousness. In that book, Updike does a neat trick where he questions a scene he’s just portrayed, wondering if it was really memory or his fictionalizing imagination that put dark clothes, for example, on a man who was fated to die.

      I think the point of all this is that there’s more variation and possibility in nonfiction in general and memoir in particular than many readers and some writers realize.

  • Dear Richard, I agree with shirleyhs, I really enjoyed Wood’s analysis oft the James’s “What Maisie Knew” passage. James is chock-full of difficult passages, as you probably well know, passages and as in this case single words or phrases where critics and scholars like to anchor their arguments and disputes with each other. James would have been wryly amused, I assume, given his love or complexity. Thanks.

    • Richard says:

      Good point, Victoria—James was such a master, so layered, his work remains news, and gives critics fodder aplenty. I love to read criticism like Wood’s because it affirm’s fiction’s magic, in this case, and helps me appreciate just how much craft went into a particular work.

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