I’m reading James Wood’s How Fiction Works. It’s a somewhat masochistic task. No fault to James Wood, who, after 25 mildly interesting pages, provides a perfectly adept and writerly dissection of the free indirect style–the kind of analysis I literally ate up in my 20s, when I was trying to figure out how to write.
Except that I can’t imagine that anyone can truly learn to write while reading such stuff. It’s good undergraduate fare for understanding exactly what his title posits–How Fiction Works–but to write the damn stuff, I don’t think any author thinks of sentences the way Wood thinks about them.
Wood gets out his scalpel and shaves the words out of sentences to show which words are authorial, omniscient, and which close in on a character’s lingo or point of view. He’s a good surgeon, but, to get just a bit mystical, I think writers feel their way through a story more than they diagram it in a blueprint (to mix metaphors, of course, because the world is a bunch of mixed metaphors–I’ve never understood why a mixed metaphor is a bad thing).
In other words, I think James Joyce or Jane Austen could write the sentences he deconstructs without giving a second thought to the labels of style he’s obsessed with. Free indirect? Even Joyce, our author of all, is primarily absorbed in just telling the story, like a hunter pulling the trigger, largely by sight and reflex and experience. He just has more mechanisms at hand than some authors do.
I think of Richard Poirier, who was recently profiled in the Times, who said that the most powerful works of literature (to revere the word “literature”) become “rather strange and imponderable” over time. The best authors elude readers, take them away from the roads of a story than can be easily charted, rather than mastering something like the free indirect style.
Poirier’s definition of “great writers” is those who are tormented and thrilled by “what words were doing to them and what they might do in return.” It’s a game, a love affair, a war, a religion, a pilgrimage. And then something more.
He said that the act of writing is an assertion of individual power. What an interesting take on this troubling, often debilitating obsession some of us have. To think of it in such a way is such a fresh, and, well, empowering way to think of what is so often marginalized, trivialized, disdained.
Gosh, writing as an assertion of power. Take that. My truth. Like a sword.
I guess this is all to say that one might learn a bit from a book like Wood’s, but writers might learn more by thinking about their assertiveness, the keen angles of their perception. That crazy intuitive sense of truth that’s so difficult to trust in the din of voices that always militate against a writer’s wishes: to write, always, with delusions within arm’s reach, hopes in the cupboard.
Think of this sentence. “Struggling for his identity within the materials at hand,” they “show us, in the mere turning of a sentence this way or that, how to keep from being smothered by the inherited structure of things.”
Who needs the free indirect style? Or rather, who needs to be so conscious of how it works when there’s something so much more urgent to wrestle with? (Yes, I sometimes like to see this all as a mythological battle of sorts. Why not?)
Life, after all, is about contradiction, messiness, far more than it is about technique.