Writing 2017-12-23

Book Notes – How Fiction Works, Ch. 2 & 3

How Fiction Works is a book written by critic James Wood and is an examination of the techniques that fiction utilizes to immerse the reader and create an experience. This is the second of a series of write-ups of notes that I have taken while reading the book.

Chapters 2 and 3: Gustave Flaubert

These are among the shorter chapters in the book, if not the shortest. The chapters more or less are a breakdown of ideas put forward by Gustave Flaubert, the French writer behind Madame Bovary among other works. James Wood contends that it is Gustave Flaubert who brought in the era of modern novelization by being the first to assemble all the literary pieces necessary for it.

In Wood’s description, Flaubert’s writing is like a camera, giving a precise description of the world of the story in a moment in time. Moreover, Flaubert is able to mix actions that occur at different time scales. Mundane repetitive actions happen at the same time as immediate and momentary actions. This serves to give the reader a sense of a fully realized world because it mimics how a reader is surrounded by a variety of events and actions in real life, both noticed and unnoticed. The author of a work might be emotionally detached from the story, but the reader could still be pulled in by the level of detail.

To be fair, this was more easily done by Flaubert because of his use of French. The language, according to Wood, allows a writer to more easily render events simultaneously that would otherwise happen at different time scales. English is somewhat more awkward in this regard. That said, it is not impossible.

Another Flaubert device is the “Flaneur”. The flaneur is a character that is unhurriedly looking out at the world, seeing its detail and reflecting on it. In other words, the character is the author’s camera as mentioned earlier. The character is a stand-in for the author and in a way, a kind of writer as well since the character is reflecting on the world and therefore creating a narration of it. Wood comments that, in a way, the existence of the flaneur as a device is the result of urbanization. People are confronted by so much in urban life that the character of the flaneur is a strong representation of what real people might do just walking down the street.

The effect is at once lifelike and artificial. Lifelike because real people are assaulted by details in the course of daily life, but artificial in that the details the flaneur is taking in are precisely chosen by the author. In fact, the flaneur as a device confuses who is doing the observing; the character or the author.


The last paragraph ties into the idea of authorial irony in the previous chapter. I feel like these two chapters were of historical purpose to get readers to understand where the indirect free speech technique originated. Today’s audiences, I feel, might wish for more investment from the characters rather than an “unhurried” observance, but the roots are clearly there.

About the author

Erik Hentell: I started out in theater before moving to graphic design. I eventually moved into web design while trying to expand my knowledge on software development. I currently work for a media company helping with their digital assets such as source code archives and ebooks.