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

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.”

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