Tag Archives: mot juste

How fiction doesn’t work

I was working in Borders the other day and stopped for a minute (ok, twenty minutes) to flip through a copy of James Wood’s new book, How Fiction Works. The book seems friendly and wise, has good taste, and accomplishes the feat of saying things both correct and unfamiliar about novels, as here:

“…language is the ordinary medium of daily communication — unlike music or paint. Our ordinary possessions are being borrowed by even very difficult writers: the millionaires of style — difficult, lavish stylists like Sir Thomas Browne, Melville, Ruskin, Lawrence, James, Woolf — are very prosperous, but they use the same banknotes as everyone else.”

This, though, stopped me:

“We have to read musically, testing the precision and rhythm of a sentence, listening for the almost inaudible rustle of historical association clinging to the hems of modern words, attending to patterns, repetitions, echoes, deciding why one metaphor is successful and another is not, judging how the perfect placement of the right verb or adjective seals a sentence with mathematical finality.”

Followed shortly on by:

There is a way in which even complex prose is quite simple — because of that mathematical finality by which a perfect sentence cannot admit of an infinite number of variations, cannot be extended without aesthetic blight: its perfection is the solution to its own puzzle; it could not be done better.”

This could only have been written by someone who has never experienced mathematical finality! No word, no sentence is ever finished and correct the way a mathematical argument is, once all the gaps are filled and the joints sealed. You spend as long as you desire making the sentence as good as you can, and then you give up, and eventually you start to get used to the sentence in its most recent form, and after a while it seems to you that the sentence could not have been written any other way.

But an honest writer knows it’s not true.

This distinction is perhaps the most powerful reason that writing novels is a dispiriting business, and doing math a fun one.

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