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.
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’ ”:
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).
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.
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.]