Book Reviews Prose

Book Review: James Wood’s ‘How Fiction Works’

Only just starting to date around the edges, this is an invaluable introduction to literature and the crafting of fiction.

Rating: 4 out of 5.
How Fiction Works: Wood, James: 9781845950934: Books


I hadn’t had much contact with literary theory until this year. I’d studied German and History, and although I’d done a couple of literature modules in German, I’d never grappled with the grand timelines of literary history, from the birth of the novel to realism to modernism to postmodernism and beyond. I bought this book to help me better understand the underpinnings of my MA Literary Translation course, and it was definitely a good idea. It was concise, easy-to-read, and full of interesting references to works I usually hadn’t read- which gave me loads of ideas for my summer reading list (when I’ll finally have the freedom to pick up a novel for myself and read it for my own goddamn pleasure).


The sections are rather erratic and staccato – short sections of usually no more than a couple of pages and sometimes as small as a single line. This didn’t bother me, because I have a short attention span and a scatterbrained reading style anyway. I’m usually thinking of exactly 6 other things whilst reading, so the easily-digestible chunks were a relief. Nothing makes me groan more than opening a book and seeing that the chapters are 120 pages long, or that, God forbid, there are no chapters at all.

This book also gave me an insight into the jargon my MA Prose coursemates are often throwing around, as well as a good grounding knowledge of the first great novelists (Flaubert, Balzac). It also helped me to more understand the modernist literary mindset, and how it contrasts with postmodernism.


I have a few criticisms, which basically boil down to:

1- this book is a product of its time and American meta-anxiety during the ‘War on Terror’.

2- the author really could have tried harder to include some more female novelists (the only two which get any kind of in-depth mention are, of course, Austen and Woolf).

and 3-(this is my PET PEEVE) the author repeatedly quotes translated fiction without mentioning the translator or the fact that the fiction is in fact translated, as is the case with all the numerous French novelists he references. He references their work as if it were their original, unadulterated words, thus erasing the translator and their invaluable contributions to making international authors accessible to monolingual Anglophone audiences. Those are not Flaubert’s words. They are an impression of Flaubert’s words via another writer. You are a leading literary critic. Please do better.