HOW FICTION WORKS
By James Wood
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
265pp. | $24
The first task of most readers contemplating a primer such as How Fiction Works is to get past a monumental sense of inferiority. Here are the best bits of all those books you haven't quite gotten around to, strung together like opaque little pearls, and gilded with a bibliography spanning Miguel de Cervantes and John Updike. In a prefatory note, James Wood mentions that Ford Madox Ford claimed to have written his study The English Novel in 1927 from memory during a summer of traveling, while he himself merely used the books handy in his study to produce "this little volume." Well, then.
Set those misgivings aside. Wood's book is a slim gift delivered with erudition that never apologizes and doesn't always explain, but graciously inducts us into the literary crusade he has been carrying on for two decades. Appointed The Guardian's chief literary critic by the tender age of 26, Wood honed his craft during a dozen years at The New Republic, before The New Yorker tapped him for the A-team last year. During all that time, he has used wit and an astonishing literary inventory to champion his brands of truth and beauty and to censure ugly fiction.
And there is an awful lot of ugliness in Wood's world. He made his reputation by taking critical aim at such juggernauts as Toni Morrison, Thomas Pynchon, and Updike. Born and raised in Britain, Wood is frequently accused of being too British in his failure to appreciate American sprawlers such as Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace, and Pynchon, who unfurl America in all its baseness and banality, its mangled language and nudge-nudge irony. For this manic mimesis Wood famously coined the term "hysterical realism." Novelists who allow their own aestheticism to tint the fictional lens (Wood cites Updike, for example), differently as they may read, are guilty of the same crime: "the strenuous display of style."
How Fiction Works doesn't spend too much time on recriminations, however, for it is not a lynching party but a celebration. In 10 tight chapters, Wood mobilizes a standing army of examples from work he admires--from Knut Hamsun's Hunger to (perhaps a trifle self-consciously) Robert McCloskey's children's classic Make Way for Ducklings--to trace the development of the novel and to cheer it through a modern Gethsemane of conventionality. How Fiction Works elucidates few ironclad rules--the novel "always...