How James Wood’s ‘How Fiction Works’ Works

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.)

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.”

Great Excitations
Much has been made, over in Wood’s native U.K., about the excitability on display in How Fiction Works. For him, the exclamation point is no enemy.

“What a piece of writing this is!”
On an excerpt from Henry James’s What Maisie Knew.

“What an amazing opening!”
On Chekhov ’s “Rothschild’s Fiddle.”

“The protagonist seems to be noticing so much, recording everything!”
On Stephen Crane’s description of a dead man with ants on his face.

“Ah, the others are mine but that last example is from Tolstoy!”
On Tolstoy’s description of a baby’s fat arms.

“How precise, paradoxically, is that ‘vague’!”
On Henry James again.

“And how well he does it!”
On Saul Bellow’s description of riding in an airplane.

Being known as America’s “most dreaded literary critic” can be a tough gig when the tables turn. Back in 2003, Wood’s first novel, The Book Against God, got mixed reviews, with Daniel Mendelsohn writing in the Times that it failed “to achieve the kind of artistic and moral augustness that it so obviously aims for.” Wood later said meeting Mendelsohn “would be perfectly amicable.” He knows things can get awkward. When he ran into Zadie Smith, whose second novel he had trashed, Wood said, “I felt I had to be constantly apologizing…She was extraordinarily nice and generous to me. And we never talked about the review.”

See Also
Is James Wood Creating an Army of Like-Minded Novelists?
James Wood Responds to Vulture

How Fiction Works
By James Wood.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $24.

How James Wood’s ‘How Fiction Works’ Works