James Wood Ain’t Afraid of Lit’s Favorite Sons


One would hope that the reading public is not so guileless nor the art of literature so glibly reducible as a recent publishing epidemic might suggest: How to Read a Book, How to Read a Novel, How to Read a Poem, How Novels Work, How to Read Literature Like a Professor, Reading Like a Writer, How to Read & Why, How to Read Slowly, Why Read? What happened here? No one, to be sure, said reading was supposed to be easy, but do we really need—do we really deserve—all this florid overexplanation? Of course, the only truly indispensable advice about reading, about how to prepare oneself for it—spiritually, if you like—was given by Dr. Johnson to Boswell and is well known: Clear your mind of cant.

Cant, unfortunately, is what many of these books tend to promote (what reasonable person would want to read literature like a professor?). Given its fantastically banal title, the uninitiated reader may be forgiven for assuming that How Fiction Works, the latest book from the celebrated literary critic James Wood, is more of the same, destined for an obscure spot on the remainders shelf somewhere between How Novels Work and How to Read a Novel. Wood, however—who recently joined The New Yorker after 12 years at The New Republic—is no ordinary critic, and How Fiction Works proselytizes on behalf of literature not merely by recommending it, but by actually embodying the virtues it sets out to praise.

Literary criticism is perhaps an inherently pugnacious discipline, and it’s certainly a dialectical one. Nietzsche said that “Every talent must unfold itself in fighting,” and Wood is a case in point. Like a rude but virtuous provincial indifferent to the capital’s elaborate codes of etiquette, Wood, an English expat, has attacked many of the dignitaries of contemporary American fiction in a way that has often scandalized the right-thinking classes. He deplores Updike for “That quality of fattened paganism [. . .] which finds the same degree of sensuality in everything, whether it is a woman’s breast or an avocado.” DeLillo is castigated for his “anxiety about having anyone of substance in [Underworld] unconnected to his central theme,” an anxiety that “is not only irritatingly airless but itself begins to seem a little paranoid, as if he can employ only characters who are loyal to him and his agenda.” Similarly inadequate are the “rapid, farce-like, overlit simplicities” of Pynchon, in whose novels “everyone is ultimately protected from real menace because no one really exists.”

Like scheming courtiers, Wood’s essays and reviews, while going about the business of scrupulously attending to other talents, have always quietly aspired themselves to the state of literary permanence. Indeed, his prose is so consistently burnished and habit-forming, always liable to blossom into metaphor at the most unseasonable moment, that many readers find themselves in the unusual predicament of looking forward to the new Roth or McCarthy novel—not for the book itself, but to see what Wood will have to say about it.

Contra certain allegations, Wood’s powers of response are sharpened as much by those authors he admires as by those he doesn’t. How can one resist a critic who writes that Knut Hamsun learned from Dostoyevsky “that plot is not something that merely happens to a character, but that a really strange character leads plot around like a weak dog”? Or who says that Cervantes “delight[s] in slipping blasphemy in through the tradesman’s entrance while noisily welcoming divinity at the front gate”? Or who describes Chekhov’s notebook as “the mattress in which he stuffed his stolen money”? Such figurative élan takes us to the very front lines of literature; by comparison, most contemporary critics are 50 miles back, in the hermetic opulence of some requisitioned château.

Two of Wood’s previous books, The Broken Estate and The Irresponsible Self, were essay collections, and while supposedly linked together on thematic grounds—religious belief in the first instance, laughter in the second—they owed their coherence more to the force of his sensibility than anything else. How Fiction Works is an attempt to be more systematic about things. In the preface, he tells us—rather surprisingly, given Wood’s anti-academic bent—that his “two favorite twentieth-century critics of the novel are the Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky, and the French formalist-cum-structuralist Roland Barthes.” Such critics appeal to him because they “thought like writers: they attended to style, to words, to form, to metaphor and imagery. But,” Wood continues, “Barthes and Shklovsky thought like writers alienated from creative instinct [. . .] they come to conclusions about the novel that seem to me interesting but wrong-headed, and this book conducts a sustained argument with them.”

His main point of contention is the way in which Barthes and Shklovsky, and their numerous bastard spawn, wish to deny the power of fiction to imitate reality, preferring instead to view it as “a self-enclosed machine,” simply because they have seen the means by which it goes about constructing that imitation. Wood’s nimbly dialectical mind insists that exactly the opposite is true—that by its very artifice, fiction “refers deeply to reality”—and makes the disciples of such skepticism seem like those obstinately lugubrious people who never quite recovered from the news that Santa Claus doesn’t exist.

In the chapter “Flaubert and Modern Narrative,” for example, he quotes a passage from Sentimental Education in which the flaneurial protagonist, Frédéric Moreau, saunters through the Latin Quarter: “At the back of the deserted cafés, women behind the bars yawned between their untouched bottles; the newspapers lay unopened on the reading-room tables; in the laundresses’ workshops the washing quivered in the warm draughts.”

Wood comments: “The effect is lifelike—in a beautifully artificial way. Flaubert manages to suggest that these details are somehow at once important and unimportant: important because they have been noticed by him and put down on paper, and unimportant because they are all jumbled together, seen as if out of the corner of the eye; they seem to come at us ‘like life.’ “

Lifelike—in a beautifully artificial way. At once passionate and objective, enraptured and discriminating, this is Wood in a sentence, a tenant in the house of fiction who knows its whole structure, as well as its moldings and fixtures and secret passageways, as comprehensively as the architect himself.