King of the Hill

How Fiction Works By James WoodFarrar, Straus and Giroux, 265 pages, $24 James Wood is in relax mode. That doesn’t

How Fiction Works
By James Wood
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 265 pages, $24

James Wood is in relax mode. That doesn’t mean he’s lost his edge, or that he can’t get excited—enthusiasm is still his best party trick: He gushes like Old Faithful. But these days he’s got nothing left to prove, no one to elbow out of the way. He’s the undisputed champ. If the poet laureate had a critic laureate to keep her company, James Wood would be he—why else would Harvard have appointed him professor of the practice of literary criticism? Why else would The New Yorker have poached him last year from The New Republic?

Of course, he still needs an audience—readers willing to read about reading and writing—and perhaps relax mode is Mr. Wood’s idea of how to pull in the crowds. How Fiction Works is aimed at the "common reader," a tag he borrows from Virginia Woolf, who borrowed it from Dr. Johnson. Mr. Wood hopes to provide something other than academic criticism or literary theory; he hopes his book "might be one which asks theoretical questions but answers them practically—or to say it differently, asks a critic’s questions and offers a writer’s answers." (Remember that in addition to two essay collections, he’s the author of a novel, The Book Against God, published to mixed reviews in 2003.)

You won’t be surprised, then, to hear that How Fiction Works isn’t a systematic study. It meanders happily, with chapters on basics like narrative, detail, character and dialogue interspersed with other chapters that sound dauntingly abstract, with titles like "A Brief History of Consciousness," "Sympathy and Complexity" and "Truth, Convention, Realism." But Mr. Wood holds to his promise never to slip into specialist jargon. Which doesn’t mean he talks down to us, or that How Fiction Works is a kind of How To for writers, readers and critics (though if it were required reading, the customer reviews on Amazon would improve overnight).

I’m pleased to report that he remains politely but firmly highbrow, alive to literature and indifferent to the rest. He takes a gentle swipe, for instance, at the "commercial realism" of John le Carré, summoning up a passage, examining it in detail, then dismissing it as a "clever coffin of dead conventions."


MR. WOOD CARVES OUT a space for himself in which to perform a series of pas de deux with a wide array of writers, from Cervantes to Sebald. Each brief dance is perfectly calibrated to show off both the skill of the writer and the subtlety of the critic’s discernment—and, of course, to illustrate a point about fiction. The performance looks effortless—not because he isn’t working hard, but because he’s enjoying himself. He’s engaged in a serious kind of ecstatic play.

I don’t mean to suggest that he’s cut himself off from what Larkin calls the "rented world." He tells us that the novelist must be a "triple writer," attuned to his "own language, style, perceptual equipment, and so on," but also sensitive to that of his characters and, finally, to "the language of the world … of daily speech, of newspapers, of offices, of advertising, of blogosphere and text messaging." He’s eager for readers and writers alike to stay connected to the "real"—"literature," he assures us, "makes us better noticers of life." At one point (though it’s tucked away in a footnote) he links, awkwardly, Dostoevsky’s "terroristic" characters to Islamic fundamentalists.

But even as he’s reminding us of Henry James’ famous advice to the novice writer ("Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!"), we remain aware that close reading and the writing of fiction happen in a private sphere, insulated from the jangle and hurry of our daily rounds. Mr. Wood urges us to "read musically, testing the precision and rhythm of a sentence, listening for the almost inaudible rustle of historical association clinging to the hems of modern words, attending to patterns, repetitions, echoes, deciding why one metaphor is successful and another is not, judging how the perfect placement of the right verb or adjective seals a sentence with mathematical finality." A cork-lined room would help, but even when we can’t find a quiet space—when we’re riding the subway, say—we manage, as Mr. Wood puts it, to "sew ourselves into the text."

Reading and writing and reading about writing—at times the circle draws comically tight. "Am I the only reader," he asks in a footnote, "addicted to the foolish pastime of amassing instances in which minor characters in books happen to have the names of writers?" (The Updike in Babbitt is on his list, along with the Brecht in Buddenbrooks.)

I play different games. When I’m reading James Wood, I monitor his metaphors, of which there are many, some of them blatantly on parade. The details in a Wordsworth poem "are pushed at us, as if by the croupier’s stick, in one single heap." Neophyte novelists who have yet to master the intricacies of action strand their characters in "the aspic of arrest."

Three more, just for the fun of it:

"The novel is the great virtuoso of exceptionalism: it always wriggles out of the rules thrown around it. And the novelistic character is the very Houdini of that exceptionalism."

"In Proust, you can see every element of characterization—and indeed of fiction-making itself—living happily together, as if you were watching schools of fish underneath a glass-bottomed boat."

"We have a conventional expectation that prose should be written in one unvarying register—a solid block, like everyone agreeing to wear black at a funeral."

And what does Mr. Wood tell us about metaphor? "Every metaphor or simile is a little explosion of fiction within the larger fiction of the novel or story." To detonate, the writer claps together disparate items (uniform prose and funeral garb, say), and if the metaphor isn’t a damp squib, the reader sees one of the items, or both, afresh.

When he’s not crafting his own metaphors, he’s swooning over those of others. He goes into raptures about the moment in To the Lighthouse when Mrs. Ramsay gently closes the door to her children’s bedroom, letting "the tongue of the door slowly lengthen in the lock." Another line from Woolf, this one from The Waves ("The day waves yellow with all its crops"), sends him into a tizzy—again: He singled out that same sentence in his first book, too, saying it "simply needs to be repeated again and again." This time, he brings to bear the critical equivalent of negative capability: "I am consumed by this sentence, partly because I cannot quite explain why it moves me so much."

He doesn’t mention, in the new book, Woolf’s literary criticism, which is of course finer than his own: To a critic’s questions, she gives a great writer’s answers. If we want to fix Mr. Wood’s place in the pantheon of critics, we should make him stand next to Edmund Wilson, another formidable highbrow recruited by The New Yorker: Mr. Wood lacks Wilson’s prodigious energy and scope, his political and social engagement.

Virginia Woolf didn’t think much of book reviewers (see her damning essay, "Reviewing"), but I bet—majest
ic snob that she so wonderfully was—she would have smiled on James Wood, who knows how to relax without slipping from highbrow to middle-.

Adam Begley is editor of the Observer Review of Books. He can be reached at

King of the Hill