The Wood Workshop: How Critic Became A One-Man School

It was an exceptional exchange, to be sure, but it demonstrated that Mr. Wood’s ideas about good and bad were consequential—that even an established writer, one who had been praised and exuberantly elevated as a rising talent, could take them to heart and choose to change her style accordingly.

 

MR. SARVAS, for his part, wishes How Fiction Works had come out sooner, so he could have applied what he learned from it to his first novel. As it is, he credits Mr. Wood’s previously published work—his reviews appeared regularly in The New Republic for 12 years before he took a staff job at The New Yorker last summer, and his essays have been collected in two volumes—with teaching him the importance of character. Thirty-two-year-old Christopher Byrd, who reviews books for a living and has recently completed a novel, said the same thing— that Mr. Wood taught him to value character and emotion over style.

“He’s a great chastening force,” Mr. Byrd said. “He makes us reassess ourselves as writers. He makes us look for emotional coherence rather than stylistic pyrotechnics, which most of the truly acclaimed writers I tend to gravitate towards are famous for. Reading Wood, one understands that style is not enough. I think that’s probably one of the most salient attributes of his criticism, one that no young writer can really miss. We live in a time where style is always in your face, but I think that Wood draws us to be more emotionally honest.”

It would be impossible at this juncture to summon any conclusive evidence as to whether there is or is not a critical mass of young authors following Mr. Wood’s instructions. That said, Pub Crawl spoke with a bunch of them, and while there are certainly those who say they write without concern for Mr. Wood’s strictures, it does appear that a lot of them are paying attention to what he’s saying.

Rebecca Curtis, who teaches creative writing at Columbia and is the author of the short-story collection Twenty Grand, said she noticed at least a few students trying their hand at free indirect style after they took the six-week master class Mr. Wood taught at the university in 2006.

“Wood is more prescriptive, for sure—perhaps more clear and definitive in his opinions and judgments, which is part of what makes him so beloved and reviled,” she said. “I have heard Columbia M.F.A.’s talk about him somewhat—very admiringly for the most part. They are very struck by his mandate that free indirect narration is the highest form of fiction writing, and I do think quite a few of them have tried to practice that technique … with his declaration in mind.”

Ms. Curtis, too, has given free indirect style
a shot: “I am trying it in one thing I’m working on,” she said. “It’s hard for me because I’m better at first person.”

At the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Mr. Wood’s influence is felt as well. Even Anna North, a second-year there, whose novel-in-progress, set in a dystopian future, doesn’t sound exactly Woodsian, said Mr. Woods’ recent writing on dialogue has made an impact on her composition.

“Wood believes that the way people talk should be as original as the way the author talks about them,” Ms. North said in an e-mail. “It’s an important lesson, and I remind myself of it often—especially when I find myself writing, ‘Oh no! We’re trapped!’ for the eightieth time.”

One wonders what will happen when Ms. North and her fellow M.F.A. students, who have come up in a world where Mr. Wood is widely considered the best literary critic of all time, start publishing their first novels. Will we see a widespread resurgence in the sort of high realism that Mr. Wood has spent his career championing?

“There is no question that he has a certain amount of pull and gravitas. He’s sitting there and prescribing it: here’s how you write well, and this is why that’s good,” said Charles Bock, whose sprawling debut novel, Beautiful Children, went unreviewed by Mr. Wood when it was published last winter. “He talks about craft so much that I think writers really pay attention to him. It’ll be interesting to see if young writers in their 20s take this book as a serious instruction manual.”

Mr. Bock, who spent 11 years writing his first book, is not so thrilled about that prospect: “Right now is a time when you want fiction to be able to go anywhere. If his little rules can help a young writer go to the places they want to go and explore things that I haven’t seen before and take me on a journey—that I’m into, hallelujah. The flip side is, if they narrow, if they limit, then, you know …”

Mr. Bock said he is starting his second novel. He has not yet read How Fiction Works. “That’s the next step,” he said. “I’ll pick it up, and maybe it won’t take me so long this time.”

lneyfakh@observer.com