Wood has always thrived in the marshy middle ground between academic and popular criticism. “I love doing what I do,” he once said in an interview, “because there is this space waiting to be filled … between literature and some of the rigor of scholarship.” Although I trust him very deeply as an enthusiastic interpreter of literary detail, I’m wary of him as a historian and a system-builder. The weakest part of How Fiction Works is its most theoretical: Wood’s effort to defend the alliance between fiction and “the real” (still not mine) from skeptical literary critics such as Roland Barthes, who famously declared the death of the author and dismissed realism as an artificial system of signs. Wood insists that “fiction is both artifice and verisimilitude, and that there is nothing difficult in holding together these two possibilities.” Although he calls How Fiction Works a “sustained argument” with Barthes and the Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky, the book never quite lives up to that tag—an overarching argument never emerges clearly from the drift of numbered sections. Wood seems to be caught between the irreconcilable urges of wanting to be idiosyncratic, personal, limited, and contingent (“I have used only the books I actually own—the books at hand in my study—to produce this little volume,” he writes), and wanting to be an all-seeing God of Novel History.
If critics are characters, they are by nature unsympathetic—the more you see of them, the more irritating they become. No critic would benefit from the level of scrutiny Wood has inspired over the last decade; his most remarkable talent is his staying power in the face of so much potentially ruinous cultural attention. How Fiction Works is most valuable not as a fulfillment of the absurdly large goal stated in its title—no 248-page book could ever come close—but as a fleshing out of the increasingly complex literary character of “James Wood.” Where he was previously formal and distant, he is now quirky and personal; where he was once flat, he is now round: He shares anecdotes of reading Beatrix Potter to his daughter, translates a Flaubert sentence into what he calls “bad hip-hop” (“The notion of procreation was a delectation”), and quirkily connects Henry James to the kids’ book Make Way for Ducklings. He stocks his footnotes with charming asides: “Am I the only reader addicted to the foolish pastime of amassing instances in which minor characters in books happen to have the names of writers?” he asks. (Yes, James, I believe you are.) He confesses to being “consumed” by a short sentence from Woolf’s The Waves (“The day waves yellow with all its crops”), and to thinking, almost every single day, of Saul Bellow’s description of a cigar. Again and again, he flaunts his excitement about his favorite books. (See below.) Even his own interpretive wit occasionally moves him to exclamatory wonder: “In fact, barometers, you might say, are very good barometers of a certain middling status: Barometers are very good barometers of themselves!” With every new work, Wood seems to inch a little closer, himself, to achieving the elusive “real.”