A MASTER CRITIC WRITES ABOUT THE ART OF FICTION
How Fiction Works by James Wood. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 288 pages. Hardcover, $24.00
Review by Erika Dreifus
Confession time: It’s more than a bit intimidating to be writing a review of a book by James Wood. That’s because Wood, professor of the practice of literary criticism at Harvard University, is perhaps best known for his own reviews, which appear frequently in the pages of the New Yorker, where he is now a staff writer (he previously spent 12 years as a literary critic for The New Republic and, at the age of 26, was appointed chief literary critic of The Guardian of London). He is accomplished and knowledgeable, and his book provides exactly the caliber of writing about writing – and the same disposition toward realist fiction – that his readers have come to expect.
Which is to say that How Fiction Works is a smart, demanding, and rewarding read. It has certainly enriched my understanding of its subject, and deepened my admiration for some of my most beloved authors. But as much as I enjoyed the book, I suspect it’s not for everyone.
Its focus is not necessarily on offering a guide to how you might begin to write your own story or novel. Rather, it’s a careful study of, well, how fiction works, from the perspective of someone who has given a great deal of thought and time to the subject. Prospective readers might want to brush up on their Flaubert, Dostoevsky, and Naipaul before plunging in, and might also wish to keep a dictionary nearby (I had to look up the meaning of “quiddity,” myself, as in “Since the novel has hardly begun, [John] Updike must work to establish the quiddity of his character”).
For the readers thus prepared, How Fiction Works provides a series of useful insights into the difficult and often mysterious elements that go into creating a novel or short story. Wood’s goal in this book is to examine what he describes in the preface as “the essential questions about the art of fiction. Is realism real? How do we define a successful metaphor? What is a character? When do we recognize a brilliant use of detail in fiction? What is point of view, and how does it work? What is imaginative sympathy? Why does fiction move us?”
Wood has some experience on the other side of the critic’s table, as a fiction writer, and in the end he seems eager for his readers to find this a book that “asks a critic’s questions and offers a writer’s answers.” As he works through all the questions, Wood sustains a larger, overarching point: “that fiction is both artifice and verisimilitude, and that there is nothing difficult in holding together these two possibilities.”
Such are the threads running through the ten sections of How Fiction Works, sections focusing on staples such as detail, dialogue, and language, as well as sections less conventionally focused on “Flaubert and the Rise of the Flaneur” and “A Brief History of Consciousness.” Throughout, Wood relies on close readings from novels and short stories, from single sentences to chunky block paragraphs, to illustrate his points.
He also invokes the work of other critics, including two of his self-declared “favorites”: Viktor Shklovsky and Roland Barthes. Much to the book’s benefit, he also contributes his own decided opinions. Even if you don’t always agree with him (even before David Foster Wallace’s untimely passing in September 2008 the idea that Wallace’s work epitomized W.H. Auden’s suggestion that the novelist must “’become the whole of boredom’” seemed unduly harsh) you’ll appreciate Wood’s wit and his voice.
If literary fiction sometimes has a reputation for appealing to a relatively small readership, this very literary book about the art of fiction may similarly lack mass appeal. But just as literary fiction has the power to entrance and enthrall, so too does How Fiction Works possess the potential for illuminating the mysteries of our art and for instructing us on how to create it ourselves.
(c) 2008 Erika Dreifus
A version of this review originally appeared in The Writer magazine.