Mark Sarvas has read James Wood’s new book three times already. That’s a lot, especially considering Farrar Straus & Giroux, its U.S. publisher, only put it out yesterday. But Mr. Sarvas, a lit blogger (his site is called The Elegant Variation) who recently published his first novel, really, really likes James Wood. He has a Google alert on his name, even, and thinks this new book he’s written, a concise and spirited defense of realism called How Fiction Works, is going to be “a key text of this age.”
“It just feels fundamental to me,” Mr. Sarvas said Monday. “I’m going to urge it on anyone who’s thinking about setting pen to paper to write a novel.”
Mr. Sarvas, 44, said also that he thinks the book should be taught in schools.
How Fiction Works does read a bit like an instruction manual for aspiring writers. This is not an insult: Mr. Wood, who has been uncommonly and unapologetically prescriptive in his approach to literature throughout his career as a critic, all but calls it that himself in the book’s preface, saying that he wants it to do for literature what John Ruskin’s The Elements of Drawing—“a patient primer” aimed at artists and art lovers alike—did for painting 150 years ago.
And it does seem very easy (perhaps deceptively so) to read How Fiction Works and extract from it practical advice—tips and tricks, even!—on how to write better.
Take the first 30 pages of the book, which are devoted to a thing Mr. Wood likes a lot called free indirect style. It’s a narrative technique, this thing, and it allows fiction writers working in the third person to immerse their readers delicately in the inner lives of their characters. Mr. Wood’s best example: “Ted watched the orchestra through stupid tears,” in which the word “stupid” hangs precariously somewhere in between Ted and the narrator who is describing him. Free indirect style, Mr. Wood explains, obscures “the gap between an author’s voice and a character’s voice,” and in its most extreme form, sees the character “rebelliously [taking over] the narration altogether.”
It sounds shockingly mechanical: find the right word, put it in the right place and transform a lifeless sentence—“Ted watched the orchestra through tears and felt stupid for crying”—into an overpowering one. Just make your narrator briefly inhabit whichever character you’re trying to describe, in other words, and voilà! Your stuff’s no less vivid than Flaubert’s or Chekhov’s.
This is not to suggest it is actually as simple as that, but the clarity and specificity of Mr. Wood’s ideas about craft and composition do make his criticism much more likely to serve as a guide for writers in search of lessons on what works and what doesn’t.
The book, curiously divided into 123 short sections rather than traditional chapters, is full of such lessons—on detail, on scene, on character, on consciousness, etc. The question is: Who will heed them? And will the fact that Mr. Wood has laid them out so plainly in this succinct volume—something few literary critics, to say nothing of book reviewers, have the heart to do these days—increase the likelihood that aspiring writers will eventually absorb and adhere to his standards?
Put another way: Are writers learning from Mr. Wood?
The man himself is humble when approached with this question. "Every so often," he said in an e-mail, "at parties, a writer will come up to me and say: your essay about so-and-so clarified a problem in my own writing, or pointed a possible direction for me in my own work, and I am grateful to you. That is the biggest compliment I can get as a critic, of course, and I do strive to describe fiction from inside rather than outside, to climb into its machine, as it were, and see how the controls work."
One writer who has learned from Mr. Wood, famously, is Zadie Smith, whose debut novel, White Teeth, provoked Mr. Wood to coin the term “hysterical realism” in a devastating 2000 New Republic review. In his piece, Mr. Wood took to task the heirs of Dickens—Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, Ms. Smith—for indulging style and bigness above humanity, for preferring plots and subplots and digressions over character development.
A year later, after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, Mr. Wood repeated the term in an article for The Guardian, after which Ms. Smith wrote a tortured reply, explaining that she thought Mr. Wood had pretty much gotten it right. “Hysterical realism,” she wrote, was a “painfully accurate term for the sort of overblown, manic prose to be found in novels like my own.”
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.”