How Fiction Works

How Fiction Works
James Wood
247 pp. Picador. $12.60

James Wood’s How Fiction Works is one of the few books I wish I’d had the opportunity to review not because I’d like to skewer it but because I wish there were an appropriate forum for my EFFUSIONS OF ENTHUSIASM about it. It’s probably inappropriate to co-opt idle brunch or dinner conversation to proclaim in what amounts to interpersonal all-caps that THIS BOOK IS FABULOUS AND I WANT TO TALK ABOUT IT FOR 500 YEARS but I’m also too taken by the project to pass over it in appreciative silence. How Fiction Works was so good that it almost hurt me to read it: the experience was akin to eating a chocolate cake too rich to digest. Hence my hasty retreat to this blog, and the bit of mental digestion it affords me.

In my opinion, How Fiction Works is an exemplary work of criticism, rigorous but readable. Wood is an attentive close reader, a consummate literary historian, and a dazzlingly eloquent prose stylist. When he’s mean, his gibes are so stunningly apt and deliciously snarky that they evoke shivers of delighted schadenfreude:  John le Carré’s uninspired prose is “a clever coffin of dead conventions,” and in bad works of realism “the machinery of convention is so rusted that nothing moves.”

But Wood can “do” admiration as well as he does acerbity. He’s not aimlessly negative so much as normatively principled, and his distaste for certain works of literature is a correlate of his commitment to a positive critical platform. Unlike so many contemporary critics, he’s courageous enough to advance and defend an ambitious and substantive position. And how exquisite is his defense! Good realist prose is “full of limit and suggestion”; metaphor “is analogous to fiction, because it floats a rival reality”; detail in good description is “savagely chosen,” with “each detail almost frozen in its gel of chosenness”; before we read especially beautiful metaphors, we have been “blandly inhabiting a deprived eloquence.” Wood should win an award for that last phrase alone. He writes of certain sentences that their “perfection is the solution to [their] own puzzle,” and his own writing is surely one such solution. His facility with language is a rarity in a field where theoretical insight often comes at the expense of lyricism. Rarely is such a lyrical talent accompanied by such a sharp critical mind, but Wood unfailingly weds argument with perfectly turned triumphs of phrase.

I’m not sure that I have all that much that’s very insightful to say about How Fiction Works–almost all my annotations are hearts or exclamation marks (in one particularly inspired moment, a very perceptive “YES!!”)–so I suppose I’ll just conclude by recommending it highly to my imagined readership. I don’t always agree with Wood’s evaluations of particular writers or texts, nor do I agree with all of his theoretical claims, but the texture of his prose is so seductive that I don’t want to disagree with him about anything. Perhaps the best part of How Fiction Works is that it demonstrates so powerfully that criticism can constitute literature in its own right, worth reading not just for its insights but also, occasionally, for its rich linguistic caresses. (Sadly I don’t have the time to elaborate on the book’s content, because I’m on several deadlines, but it’s very smart and thought-provoking–perhaps more soon, when I finish reading the 1000000 things I need to read….)

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