Matt Shaer reviews the recently published book How Fiction Works by James Wood: “Wood, a staff writer at The New Yorker and former chief literary critic at the Guardian and The New Republic, is often called America’s preeminent literary critic.”
And, Shaer reports, that for the most part, Wood succeeds.
Drawing on his own vast fund of reading, Wood seeks out those moments when novelists come closest to achieving “lifeness” – or at least “the nearest thing to life” – in their art. One of the great pleasures in reading “How Fiction Works” comes from savoring the carefully selected passages that Wood chooses to illustrate his points.
How Fiction Works is, Shaer says, mainly an academic text that requires a familiarity with the major Western texts, including works by writers such as Henry James, Stendhal, Flaubert, Dafoe, Dostoevsky, and Nabokov. Wood uses passages from these writers to illustrate his points about “the basic building blocks of the novel: narration, detail, character, metaphor, and style.” But the emphasis is on characterization:
What really fascinates Wood – and what makes the book hum – is the messy business of characterization: the “thousands of different kinds of people, some round, some flat, some deep, some caricatures, some realistically evoked, some brushed in with the lightest of strokes.”
I’m still waiting for my pre-ordered copy of Wood’s book to arrive from Amazon. This review has piqued my impatience.