Noticing the detail in James Wood’s How Fiction Works


Literature makes us better noticers of life; we get to practise on life itself; which in turn makes us better readers of detail in literature; which in turn makes us better readers of life. And so on and on. You have only to teach literature to realise that most young readers are poor noticers. I know from my own old books, wantonly annotated twenty years ago when I was a student, that I routinely underlined for approval details and images and metaphors that strike me now as commonplace, while serenely missing things which now seem wonderful. We grow, as readers, and twenty-year-olds are relative virgins. They have not yet read enough literature to be taught by it how to read it. 

You only have to read How Fiction Works to realize you haven’t been as a good a noticer in life or in literature as you once thought you were. This is why I’ve reread it once a year or so since it came out in 2007, and each time I notice different things about it—like in this passage, where the adverb “serenely” is so appropriate despite the many admonishes to avoid adverbs whenever possible. We know precisely what the twenty-year-old is like, mostly like because we’ve met him and her, perhaps been him or her.

I also notice Wood’s phrase “relative virgins,” which is funny because virginity is supposed to be a binary thing: you are one or you aren’t. But in a post-Bill-Clinton age when nominal “abstinence pledges” make the parsing of the relation of act to word important to a surprisingly large number of people, virginity feels a lot more relative than it used to. Maybe I wouldn’t be as aware of this if I hadn’t read Tom Perrotta’s The Abstinence Teacher, which in turn cues me into the kinds of things I hear from undergrads at the University of Arizona—which may in turn feed my own fiction, in the kind of virtuous cycle Wood describes here. And since I have taught literature, I know precisely what he means about “poor noticers,” except that he should probably add that relatively few people become the kinds of dramatically good noticers who really love literary fiction as they get older: hence some of the popularity of the Dan Browns of the world.

Finally, because How Fiction Works is so delightful, one more quote: “The novel is the great virtuoso of exceptionalism: it always wriggles out of the rules thrown around it.”

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