Posted by: Corri van de Stege | May 3, 2008

Language, realism and novels

Ahead of Sunday (I have signed up to the Sunday Salon)  and as part of a wonderful long bank holiday weekend with lots of reading and writing, herewith some more reflections on James Wood How fiction works.


I have now finished reading this little gem of a book.   It’s helpful at a time when I quietly despair about my own writing efforts and wonder whether what I’m writing is only so much more dross.  Reading this book has been a form of escapism, while trying to come to grips with the fact that I simply have not got the energy to write after the day job has swallowed up all my creativity in the production of research reports and non-fiction papers on education, policy and strategy and such like things.


So, how does fiction work?

The book has a wonderful chapter on Language and then later on some sections on the use of metaphor and the free indirect style.  Wood gives examples of writers producing beautiful sentences in an inherently simple prose style.  For example, Woolf’s The day waves yellow with all its crops  (Waves) evokes the cornfields, the wind, the colours etc and James Wood goes on to say that we should be aware that authors use the ‘same banknotes as everyone else does’ (p.139).


Wood considers the attack by Patrick Giles (on a literary blog) and William Gass on fiction as ‘realism’; they end up asserting that realism is a genre that is wedded to a certain conventionality.  Wood says ‘you cannot move from the charge that there is a certain fiction with a conventionality to the sceptical conclusion that fictive content can therefore never convey anything real, that narrative represents literally nothing’.  This, he says, is an incoherent argument and as a former philosophy graduate I am greatly taken by this reductio ad absurdum.


In Wood’s view all fiction is convention in one way or another; and if you reject a certain kind of realism for being conventional you will also have to reject for the same reason surrealism, science fiction, and all those others.


Through a number of supremely clearly argued sections he arrives at the notion that realism as truthfulness in novels is about lifelikeness, life on the page, not just about verisimilitude or lifesameness.  Realism allows all the other forms such as magical realism, fantasy, science fiction, because it is no less than life brought to a different life by the author, the ‘highest artistry’. 


This is a great book, very clear and a must for anyone interested in reading and writing.  I’m going to spend Sunday doing some more of both: reading and writing.




  1. Isn’t fiction an expression of everything: realism, surrealism, sci-fi, etc?

    Which of course brings us to conventionalism in all the literature genres.

  2. “…you cannot move from the charge that there is a certain fiction with a conventionality to the skeptical conclusion that fictive content can therefore never convey anything real, that narrative represents literally nothing”. Indeed. I couldn’t agree more. And I have so little impatience with such arguments. I have this book on order from the library due to your continued strong recommendation. Thanks!

  3. Thanks for letting me know about this book. I definitely think I need to check it out.

  4. I’m with you 100% on this one. If you’re interested please see my concurring review here:

  5. Jose: yes, I’m with you there.
    TJ: great choice
    Megan: yes do – well worth it
    Nigel: will come along now and read.

  6. Surrealism could be realism to one but completely imagination to another. Fiction, therefore, is a construction that roots into the author’s own convention. This convention could be his/her way of thinking, cultural background, or gender senses.

  7. Matthew: that’s a though: one person’s surrealism is another’s realism. Must remember that!

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