James Wood | How Fiction Works (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

book_how-fiction-works.jpgHow Fiction Works is a marvelously readable appreciation of how Wood’s favorite writers achieve their effects.







The first thought that might occur to you regarding How Fiction Works is that it’s rather amazing that even a Harvard Professor of the Practice of Literary Criticism could adequately address the topic in a small-format volume of only 288 pages. The good professor clues us in early on as to how he manages this: The works he discusses are those from his personal collection, which embody a particular style of writing of which he approves. He didn’t quite say that last bit but it’s clear from reading the book. So this is really a book about how fiction in the style of Jane Austen and Herman Melville works; if you are interested in, say, how fiction by "hysterical realists" (so labeled by Wood himself) such as Thomas Pynchon and Zadie Smith works, you’ll have to seek elsewhere.

But setting aside that major quibble, How Fiction Works is a marvelously readable appreciation of how Wood’s favorite writers achieve their effects. It frequently takes the tone of an enlightened religious tract in which worship at the shrine of naturalistic fiction has replaced more conventional devotions (and I’m not the first to note the parallel with the evangelistic faith in which Wood was reared). It also reeks of a privileged education and the leisure to spend hours dissecting the writing of Gustave Flaubert or Henry James, while barring the gates against interlopers (many of whom had equally privileged educations) who would ruin the purity of the craft. But How Fiction Works is also a welcome corrective to endless discussion about signifiers and signifieds and aporia: Woods embodies a return to the practice of literary criticism as appreciation as well as analysis, and he’s not afraid to communicate his enthusiasm for his favorite texts.

Woods arranges his thoughts in numbered paragraphs within chapters with titles such as "Narrating," "Sympathy and Complexity" and "Truth, Convention and Realism." This format allows him to skip the work of constructing a unified argument and places the burden on the reader to draw the connections. Of course, to do so you have to think along Wood-ian lines, so the technique fairly cries out to be deconstructed by those who disagree with his assumptions while at the same time producing a particularly reinforcing effect for those who agree. And if you can get over the initial assumptions, there’s a lot to enjoy here.

One note of appreciation for a relatively minor matter: The dust jacket of How Fiction Works is appealingly retro, signaling the tenor of the opinions voiced within. No slick paper or superfluous illustrations for this volume, just a clean, two-tone layout of the title and author’s name which you can view here, along with a sample of the contents. Sad to say, this masterpiece of style has been ruined in the paperback edition (and I’m sure there’s a moral conclusion to be drawn in there somewhere) by inclusion of an over-the-title blurb from Time magazine (how crass!) and the publisher’s name below that of the author’s. | Sarah Boslaugh

288 pages, 2008. $24 (hardcover)

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