Tag Archives: fiction

The blue river of truth: How Fiction Works

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That’s right, people, I can do a book review, because I finally finished a book!

I bought How Fiction Works by James Wood from Shakespeare & Co Booksellers on Broadway in New York City. My friend Kate and I stumbled upon it when going for a walk around the Village one night, and ended up spending ages there just looking at the amazing array of books.  It’s one of the best bookshops I’ve been to.

I love bookshops. They’re my happy place. Which is seems slightly absurd now, considering how little I read and the anxiety that causes me, but I find them such a calming place. When I was stressed out doing my masters thesis, the two places that I knew would bring me peace and calm was either making my then boyfriend drive me to the pet store so I could go and look at the puppies – they always made me forget my worries – or otherwise going to the University Bookshop. I could just wander around it for hours, looking at books, enjoying the quiet. Bookshops just feel like knowledge in a bottle. It’s all just sitting there waiting for you to drink it in.

There’s just something beautiful and familiar about a bookshop for me, and I’ve realized that I gravitate towards them when I travel. Thinking about my trip to New York and surrounds, we ended up in bookshops a lot – we ate dinner at a bookshop twice in Washington DC, we had coffee and cake at a bookshop in Boston each night we were there, we had coffee and cake in another bookshop in Georgetown. (It seems like there’s often eating involved with the books). And I can vividly remember spending a long time in a bookshop in Kota Kinabalu in Borneo when I was there. I’m heading to Blenheim this weekend and if it weren’t for the fact that I’m arriving after lunchtime on Saturday, and therefore outside of opening hours in Blenheim, I would head along to my favourite little bookshop there, just to wander amongst the books and see what they’re displaying and promoting as their recommended books of the moment.

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James Wood is widely considered to be one of, if not the best book critic of his generation. He currently writes for The New Yorker, and before that wrote for The New Republic. He is also a professor of English at Harvard University, so his credentials for explaining how fiction works are impeccable.

I really enjoyed how this book was set out. I’d read in some reviews that it made the argument of the book weaker, but to me it was one of the book’s strengths. It’s set out in large chapters, but within those there are shorter sections, and some of them are incredibly short, as in half a page. No doubt it’s because of my increasingly miniscule attention span that I enjoyed this set-up. It was like the book was cut into bite-size pieces. It was particularly helpful for a book of this nature, for while it’s certainly written for a popular audience, it is still quite literary and academic in nature, so with these short sections, you don’t get bogged down in terminology.

What I will take away from this book is not so much that I now know ‘how fiction works’ – although I do know more about the basic elements that go into fiction writing, styles of narrative etc – but the unadulterated joy that Wood takes in close reading.  This book made me excited to read again. It made me want to go back and reread some novelists that I love, like Zadie Smith or Michael Ondaatje, for their ability to just completely encapsulate the nature of a person in a few sentences or to describe the world in language so beautiful that it makes you look at it the mundane wonder.

There are some authors that just seem to have the ability to so perfectly explain something you have felt or someone you know or some characteristic of life.  Wood explains it thus “And in our own reading lives, every day, we come across that blue river of truth, curling somewhere; we encounter scenes and moments and perfectly placed words in fiction and poetry, in film and drama, which strike us with their truth, which move and sustain us, which shake habit’s house to its foundations.” (244)

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It’s that ability of fiction to make one sympathise with others, to understand their motivations and to see the world through different eyes that Wood posits is one the art form’s major strengths. He rages against the ‘contagion of moral niceness’ that sees readers and reviewers complain about being expected to identify with unsavoury characters, arguing that the very nature of literature encourages readers to move beyond their own experience and that this is a “moral and sympathetic education of its own kind”.

On the cover of the book, a Time reviewer is quoted saying ‘The pleasure of the book lies in watching Wood read.” That pleasure and enthusiasm Wood feels (he’s a liberal user of the exclamation mark) is infectious and it made me excited to read again, to revel in the beauty of language and to cherish that knowledge we gain from seeing ourselves and our world reflected in that blue river of truth.

 

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For life is time, and time is all there is.

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I’ve finally finished a book. I bought James Woods’s How Fiction Works when I was in New York in July/August, and I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve only just finished it now. In fact, I’m even more embarrassed to admit that I haven’t finished anything else since that time. I’ve got about six books that I’ve started and not finished on my bookshelf, and thinking about it, the only thing that I have apparently managed to finish this year is the Twilight Series, and that only took me a week to read the four books.

I do love reading. I love the feeling of getting swept away into another world, the feeling when you have a great book on the go and it almost feels like a secret that you have and you take any spare moment to read so that you can escape to that other life.

But it appears that reading is something I’m not very good at any more.

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I’m not a fast reader, which I find a hindrance. I feel like if I could just read faster, then somehow I would read more. But looking at my pathetic efforts at reading this year, I don’t know if that would really make much difference. I mean, I’m a slow reader, but I don’t think I’m so slow that it should take me a few months to read a book that’s only just over 200 pages! I’m not so slow that I should have only read five books this year, four of them being aimed at teenagers.

What I’ve come to realize is that reading is something that does take a certain amount of dedication, for me at least, and it’s something I’m dreadfully out of practice at. I feel like my attention span has possibly gotten shorter as well. Sometimes I start reading and I can feel my attention drift off to thinking about something else. My eyes are still reading the words, but my brain isn’t taking any of it in, and I realize I’ve read a page of words, but that’s all they are – words. I haven’t learnt or retained anything.

But my problem with making time for reading is part of a wider sense of time wasting or running out. I just sometimes feel that living gets in the way of my life. Obviously I have been filling my time with something for the past year, if not reading, but it’s sometimes difficult to know exactly where your time goes.

There are 168 hours in a week, and I work full time, so 40 hours a week are gone there, and I sleep maybe eight hours a night, so that’s 56 hours gone. So that’s 72 hours left. If I whip 22 of those hours off for some boring things like, I don’t know, showering or eating breakfast, that still leaves me with 50 hours of something resembling leisure time. Even if it’s only 40 hours, I still feel like that’s a lot of time to get something achieved, but apparently my achievements don’t involve finishing books, or sometimes even magazines – I bought the November edition of MindFood magazine last month and still haven’t managed to read it all, because apparently I haven’t had time.

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I have all these ideas of things that I want to do – read more books, write more, learn Spanish, I’ve got the third season of Arrested Development to watch that I borrowed off a friend months ago (sorry, Steph!). So if I’m not doing all of these things, what exactly am I doing?

I know one of the big time suckers is the internet. I have to admit I waste a lot of time there, but I wouldn’t have thought it would be in the vicinity of 40 hours. Surely not! Especially considering I’m on a computer all day at my work. 80 hours of computer time a week sounds a little scary. Internet time wouldn’t worry me too much if it were being used productively, like reading the New York Times or Salon or something that’s helping me learn. Instead, chances are I’m reading gossip posts on Oh No They Didn’t. I actually have that website open right now, although, thankfully, the New York Times as well.

I always wished I could be one of those people that just didn’t need much sleep. That if I only needed five hours a night to function, then I would suddenly be that much more productive, because I would have an extra three hours in the day, but I think I’m starting to realize it would actually probably just give me more time to waste at this stage, and I would just end up looking like crap from lack of sleep to boot. I haven managed to convert myself into a morning person. I now enjoy getting up early in the morning, but I’m not necessarily more productive with that time. I just spend a bit more time lingering over my morning coffee, reading the paper and still manage to be running late for work.

I recently read a letter written into Cary Tennis’ Since You Asked advice column on Salon.com that was asking how to get into a routine. In the reply, Tennis explained that in order to get a better idea of where his time was going, for a few days he wrote down he was doing at 15-minute intervals to try and see what patterns were emerging and where his time went.

I am thinking of trying this, but I’m also concerned that I will manage to skew the results. Chances are I’m not going to waste an hour on ONTD when I have to write down what I’m doing every 15 minutes, but I guess it could be worth a shot. And hey, at least I might be more productive for those two days. In fact, maybe that’s the way to increased productivity – keeping very close tabs on myself.

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It would also be interesting to see a time map of those incredibly productive people, say, someone like Michelle Obama, who managed to have a husband and raise children and work and still find time to work on those gloriously toned arms and looked good. I bet she even found time to read a book or two, although probably not Twilight.

I actually remember thinking that surely one of the only benefits of being imprisoned would be that you had all that time to read. I could catch up on all the books that I never got around to reading. But I think by noticing how much time I manage to waste already, I don’t imagine I would be that much more efficient. I’d probably be gossiping with other inmates and complaining how I still hadn’t managed to finish Crime and Punishment.

Oh, and when I said at the top of this post that I had finally finished How Fiction Works, I have to confess that I haven’t actually finished it – but I almost have, I swear! I will post my thoughts on it sometime soon, and I’m hoping to make a book review a bi-monthly occurrence on my blog as a way to encourage me to actually finish books. I had initially thought weekly, but let’s not go crazy here.

PS: The title for this post is a quote from a commencement address by Gloria Steinem in 1987 at Tufts University – ‘This is the last period of time that will seem lengthy to you at only three or four years. From now on, time will pass without artificial academic measure. It will go by like the wind. Whatever you want to do, do it now. For life is time, and time is all there is.’

I really love this quote, as it really captures, for me, how the nature of time has changed completely after leaving university. Now that it is completely unbounded by that ‘artificial academic measure’ it is at once seemingly endless and also so much more fleeting than it ever was.

 

 

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