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How James Wood’s ‘How Fiction Works’ Works

And why it sometimes doesn’t.


Illustration by Oliver Kugler  

Literary critics are, above all, literary characters: verbal constructs that posture as human beings in order to sell some more or less persuasive story. You might say, in fact—if you’re in an old-fashioned, paradoxical mood—that critics are the very apotheosis of literary character, since they are characters formed entirely out of characterizations of other characters. Over the past two decades, James Wood has established himself as one of the strangest, most vivid critical characters on the scene. He’s been, by now, pretty much universally acknowledged—grudgingly, fawningly, eagerly, nervously, warningly, or mockingly, depending on which journals you subscribe to—as the best book critic currently classing up the back end of America’s magazines. (After writing for The New Republic for twelve years, he moved last summer to The New Yorker.) His strengths leave very little room to dispute this supremacy. In fact, one of the many ironies that flock around Wood is that it would probably take Wood himself—a world-class praiser who is rarely wrong about authors he loves—to adequately catalogue the many pleasures of reading James Wood. He reads widely, deeply, fully, and closely; he extracts gallons of meaning from tiny dewdrops of text; his sentences (especially his metaphors) regularly outperform the book he’s reviewing; and he transmits his enthusiasms so stirringly it’s practically a form of intellectual erotica.

But, like many public figures who are so reliably excellent they risk monotony, Wood is saved from his abilities by his fascinating limitations. He is, in spite of his prodigious gifts, mystifyingly, perversely, delightfully limited. His sensibility—high-minded, self-serious, evangelical—seems to have been pickled back in 1863, so that he appears to be carrying out a Borgesian experiment of restaging Matthew Arnold’s entire career in an era that has learned to ignore Victorian sagery. Among our book blogs and digital libraries and metacritical review-collating hyperlinked global salons, Wood remains provocatively analog. His pronouncements arrive walnut-paneled, camphor-sprinkled, and attended by retinues of white-gloved footmen. (As the journal n+1 once put it, it’s like he seems “to want to be his own grandfather.”) I recently suffered a moment of deep existential disorientation when I realized that Wood, at 43, is actually three years younger than David Foster Wallace, who radiates a generational energy to which Wood is apparently totally immune. Wood’s rare and cursory references to pop culture—Seinfeld, Amazon, Ricky Gervais—are always jarring, like a videotaped hostage holding a copy of today’s newspaper to prove he’s still alive.

As a critic, Wood is deeply devoted to a set of commonsensical humanist assumptions that he tends to express in vague old-timey terms like “the self” and “the real.” He is most aligned, spiritually, with canonical realism, so he spends his very rich attention lavishly in all the usual storefronts: Proust, Woolf, Tolstoy, Flaubert, Stendhal, Dostoyevsky, Dickens, Conrad, and above all Chekhov. (You could stir an industrial vat of molasses with James Wood’s Chekhov boner.) This solid ideological platform allows him to critique books with impressive coherence, instead of just making it all up as he goes along. But it also often feels dogmatic—a strict aesthetic dress code that consistently dismisses pomo riffraff like Pynchon for what strikes me as the superficial charge of lacking what Wood calls “final seriousness.”

How Fiction Works is largely an outgrowth of Wood’s experience teaching at Harvard, where he’s been since 2003 and is now Professor of the Practice of Literary Criticism. It’s obvious why his classes are apparently so popular. The book is studded with great teacherly moments. He’s particularly good at comparing texts from very different eras and genres: e.g., four different novelists’ descriptions of fire, the rendering of consciousness in the Old Testament versus Shakespeare versus Dostoyevsky, and birdcalls in Browning and Chekhov—“When Robert Browning describes the sound of a bird singing its song twice over, in order to ‘recapture / The first fine careless rapture,’ he is being a poet, trying to find the best poetic image; but when Chekhov, in his story ‘Peasants,’ says that a bird’s cry sounded as if a cow had been locked up in a shed all night, he is being a fiction writer: He is thinking like one of his peasants.” Wood vividly breaks down the technique of “free indirect style,” in which a third-person narrator subtly adopts flavors of a character’s voice and, as Wood puts it, “We inhabit omniscience and partiality at once.”

The title of How Fiction Works promises so much that it almost crosses over, like Harold Bloom’s Genius, into self-parody. And yet, if any modern critic could pull off such an outlandish feat of analytic strength, it would be Wood. He’s already proved himself to be our most consistently powerful analyst of how fiction works on a local level—author by author, text by text, word by word—so you’d expect him to be equally good on how fiction works in the abstract. Readers looking for the final unveiling of an airtight Woodian system, however, will be disappointed. Although the book makes some big argumentative noises—about, for instance, the relationship between fiction and “the real” (italics decidedly not mine)—it progresses not through closely reasoned chapters but through 123 numbered sections grouped around themes (Character, Dialogue, Flaubert). These sections range from a few lines to a few pages, and they skip quickly from novel to novel and anecdote to anecdote—a form that scatters what might have been the work’s argumentative force. (You might even say, again if you were in that special kind of mood, that Wood’s critical method is Chekhovian: He renounces the inhumanly streamlined “plot” of continuous argument in order to wander from detail to detail in search of epiphanic flashes.)

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