How Fiction Works

The term “genius” is bandied about so cavalierly that it is usually misapplied. It often confuses mere competence with genius rather than referring to the unique intelligence that is the mark of a William Shakespeare, a Jane Austen, or an Albert Einstein. Given this caveat, it is not out of line to call James Wood, based on his penetrating understanding of the dynamics of fiction writing, a genius in the field of literary criticism.

In this discerning book, whose title might erroneously suggest that it is a how-to book for people who hope to become novelists, Wood draws on his encompassing literary background and, in what becomes a thumbnail history of much of the Western world’s greatest literature, analyzes the mystery of how notable writers of fiction have achieved their artistic outcomes. Wood’s credentials for writing a book of this sort are impeccable; other distinguished critics have identified him as the most outstanding literary critic of his day.

In 1992, just short of his twenty-seventh birthday, Wood, still living in his native Great Britain, became the chief literary critic of The Guardian of London, a publication for which he still writes regularly. He served for twelve years as a major literary critic and senior editor of The New Republic in New York, and during this time he taught classes in literature and literary criticism at Boston University (coteaching with Nobel laureate Saul Bellow), Kenyon College, and Harvard University, where he has been professor of the practice of literary criticism since 2003. A regular contributor of book reviews to The New Yorker, he left The New Republic in 2007 to become a staff writer for that prestigious magazine.

Wood is controversial in that he spurns a narrow academic approach to literary criticism in favor of applying an aesthetic perspective to the fictional works he is reviewing. He assesses fiction by scrutinizing it closely and analytically, claiming “that there really is no such thing as irrelevant detail in fiction, even in realism, which tends to use . . . detail as a kind of padding, to make verisimilitude seem nice and comfy.”

Were he to analyze the preceding sentence, Wood undoubtedly would fix his attention upon its last five words, pointing out that they progressor, according to one’s likes and dislikesregress from the formality of “verisimilitude” to the downright familiar jargon of “nice and comfy.” His contrast in those words is clearly aimed at drawing his readers into his camp immediately after the formality of verisimilitude may well have alienated them.

Although Wood never refers directly to Plato’s theory of ideas (forms or shapes that are the essence of objects), he is concerned in many pages of this book with a quality that he chooses to call “thisness” and, in one instance, identifies as “quiddity.” Thisness and quiddity refer to the essence of things. In writing about David Foster Wallace’s story “The Suffering Channel,” Wood notes that Wallace is writing about the decomposition of language, and that, by writing twenty or thirty pages in a style that may seem tedious and trying to read, he “prosecutes an intense argument about the decomposition of language in America, and he is not afraid to decomposeand discomposehis own style in the interests of making us live through this linguistic America with him.” In doing so, Wallace creates a Platonic ideal, his prose capturing the thisness of his argument through a process that Wood terms the “full immersion method.”

Wood contends that few books have appeared that consider how fiction works after the publication in 1927 of E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel (which Wood considers imprecise) and of three books by Milan Kundera on the art of fiction. He considers Kundera a novelist and essayist, not a literary critic in any practical sense.

Whereas Forster often eschews flat characters, preferring fiction populated by what he considers round characters, Wood defends flat characters. He likens them to caricatures and points out their artistic function of illuminating specific human traits or characteristics, often by exaggerating them and presenting...

(The entire section is 1733 words.)