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The growth of the creative writing course in the United States—and in Europe, even if at a slower pace—has raised anew the old question of what forms an artist, talent or skill—and if it is a mixture, the importance of learning. (fn1)

Our understanding of literature (and art more generally) as the outcome of (divine) inspiration is, for sure, itself a product of a specific narrative—namely, that of the clear distinction between the arts and the crafts, which Larry Shiner associates with the post-Renaissance period. His book ‘The Invention of Art; A Cultural History’ (Chicago University Press 2001) is informative and nicely written.

A delightful book on fiction writing is James Wood’s ‘How Fiction Works’ (Vintage 2009). Its subject matter is similar to the equally interesting excursion by David Lodge ‘The Art of Fiction’ (Penguin 1992), whereby Wood’s indirect story-telling makes for a more winding and extraordinary journey.

It is a book about narrative and narrating, detail, character, dialogue, language, the treatment of consciousness and of the real. All these components are distinct yet inter-connected, and it is their mode of interrelation which is at the heart of how fiction works.

Take first- and third-person narrative. The latter is supposed to be more reliable, yet a closer look reveals that the boundaries are not so clear, or only to the extent wished by the author, for instance through the use of free indirect style. Fiction is like the game of distance and intimacy between author and character. Playing that well requires skill, and the less the skill is realized by the reader, the more we are likely to refer to talent.

My favourite chapter in the book is that on detail. Fiction, as James Wood succinctly observes, is about the ‘selection of detail’ (p.47). Contemporary fiction often tends to be very realistic, description resembling that of amateur photography—a tree is a tree (or any tree), a book is a book (or any book), a hand is a hand (or any hand), a broken heart is a broken heart (like any other), and so on and so forth. This type of fiction might be thrilling by reason of its good storyline, but it lacks the magic of classics like, for instance, ‘A Portrait of a Lady’ by Henry James.

I am talking about the type of magic that draws you in when reading so that you forget everything around you and can immerse into a different world. Eliciting that magic, it seems, has a lot to do with the type of detail, and especially minor detail, a writer selects to describe. Its non-completeness is a key characteristic. That is what makes it ‘really true’. If it were to be complete—real and fully conscious—it would no longer be magic, hence also not recognized as true. That is also why minor characters are as important as main characters.

Wood’s book is full of examples and most of these come from the classics. If that says something about contemporary literary fiction, then the creative writing course might be getting something wrong—which, hopefully, is not the case.

(fn1) For a review of the recent literature see Louis Menand, ‘Show or Tell: Should Creative Writing be Taught?’ The New Yorker, June 15, 2009