Tuesday, April 21, 2009


This just in: I am now an even bigger English nerd than I once was.

About a week ago I checked out this book at my local library; it's called How Fiction Works by James Wood. It's REALLY nerdy. Like, it could easily be used as a text book for a Literary Analysis class. And I'm reading it for fun. During my semester away from school. You may think this sounds crazy, but I actually find it very interesting to read some critic (who, like all critics, thinks his opinion on EVERYTHING is the only correct one...ha ha ha....I mock their narcissism) ranting and raving on which elements work well in fiction/narratives and which ones don't.

Thus far I've been reading his thoughts on which perspective of narration is the superior-est one. He likes what he calls "free indirect style", which is basically third person narration with a really close tie to the main character--sometimes the reader can't tell if a descriptive word in the narration is the author's word or his character's. I thought immediately, of course, of Harry Potter because that's the type of narration J.K. Rowling uses.

Now, you all know that I adore Harry Potter, so don't take this the wrong way, but...seriously? James Wood thinks that he's special enough to declare which type of narration is "best"? Say what? I think various perspectives are excellent in literature! Which one is "best" is entirely dependent upon the author's intentions! That's like a person approaching you and saying, "Here. Look at these outfits and tell me which one is the best." The person then reveals a diving suit, an evening gown, a police uniform, a t-shirt and jeans, and an astronaut uniform. You can't choose one that is "best". You don't know for what occasion you are picking the outfit!!

For instance, I think that Wood's "free indirect style" is a good one, and I've seen it used very effectively in lots of different literature, but every style has it's place. I, for one, am a big fan of first person narration because as readers we get extremely close to the character; the tone is generally much more conversational. Wood dislikes this form of narrative in most cases (with a few exceptions, including that of Jane Eyre) because of its unreliability--we can't ever be sure we are being told the real story all the time because the character's judgment is skewed and biased; I think there's something to be said about this skewed bias--it too has its merits! Sure, we may not be given an accurate account of events, but we are seeing the events as told by an involved character, which is an entirely different story on its own. Imagine reading Looking for Alaska from the perspective of a third-party narrator. Or even in first person, but from...say...The Colonel's perspective....or The Eagle's. It would become a completely altered book!

To be fair, Wood doesn't actually claim "free indirect style is the best", but he beats you over the head with how amazing he thinks it is, barely even mentioning the other forms of narrative at all: I'm to page 77 and so far he's included one paragraph about each of the alternative perspectives; the remainder of those 77 pages is absolutely devoted to free indirect style. He is a man obsessed, I think. He's spent way too much time focusing only on literary criticism instead of enjoying the literature for what it is every once in a while.

I'm just glad that I'm reading this book using my handy-dandy critical thinking skills and not just blindly accepting everything this guy has to say. Sorry if I bored you with my English-ness!

Under-Appreciated Vocabulary Word of the Day:
myrmidon (n): an unquestioning follower

P.S. Share your literary opinions in the comments if you have stuff to add to this/weren't scared off by my outburst.


  1. Under-Appreciated Non-word of the Day: nermidon (n): an unquestioning follower of Alex Day (aka nerimon) :-p

    I agree with your analysis of this guy's literary criticism. It's ok to prefer one style over another, but at least give equal attention to each. Or at least choose a title that makes it clear that all fiction doesn't HAVE to be like that, because that title makes it sound like fiction only works if it's done like he likes it.

  2. I agree as well! Wish I had more to add, but...yeah :] I think you covered it

  3. I agree with you. Especially where you said that a biased narrator doesn't necessarily make a bad one. If anything, it sometimes makes the novel a lot more interesting.