How Criticism Serves: Review of James Wood’s How Fiction Works

James Guida

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $24.00 (hardcover)

As a number of people have pointed out, the title of James Wood’s new book may at first seem preposterous: How Fiction Works. Even an accomplished novelist should ideally be more modest, at least a trifle anyway, and if still attracted by such a claim, they might reasonably be expected to limit it to how their fiction works, or how some fiction they’ve studied and are passionately excited about works. Anything else would ring of presumptuousness. But then, ‘works’ is in italics on the book’s cover, and the initial response becomes complicated. Wood is probably alluding to the fact that writing is not magic or witchcraft, that literary artists labor to achieve their effects. Also, to the fact that it works in the sense of functioning, and, sometimes, functioning well. There is success in writing, and in this book-length essay Wood is more interested in that success than in the infinite deviations.

That Wood himself has been hard at work over the years won’t be denied by anyone. His critics sometimes object that he is a narrow reader, but few essayists working today show evidence of having read as widely, as passionately, or as thoughtfully. If he has become feared for his negative judgments, I tend to think this is because he has frequently reached them not by misreading, but precisely by his success at understanding a writer’s terms and intentions. He can seem, perversely, to understand them too well, more than is seemly, more than the writer herself, damn it. Thus his admirers sometimes praise him for teaching people to read like authors. That notion has unattractive implications for me, and I prefer to see him less as a writer trespassing on the grounds of criticism, than as an agent of intelligence, a surgical moral camera that can be fed into the book in question, and, at its best, present us with a detailed inside view and diagnosis.

Although this work deserves the usual acclaim, one hopes it won’t be assigned in universities. I imagine Wood secretly hopes this too, for he can probably remember the richer pleasure of contraband reading in school. Force-feeding can produce an aversion to anything, no matter how delicious or nourishing; ultimately it’s a kinder fate for a writer to intoxicate those who come upon them inadvertently, enjoying in their work the thrill of illicit discovery. Obviously, criticism that merits even an approximation of this reception is rare, so when it occurs it goes far. Wood’s writing on fiction, as with any criticism that comes to be valued in its own right, distinguishes itself not only by its remarkable sensitivity to literature, but also by its treatment of fiction as a vital branch of knowledge.

And yet, there is another reason I wouldn’t wish this work to become required reading, and that is because I fear the emergence into the world of a thesis entitled ‘The This-ness of Life-ness.’ This-ness and life-ness are two terms Wood uses to talk about ideals of specificity and realism in fiction; they mark a rare vagueness for otherwise so clear and practical a critic. In such a sweeping sense as Wood uses it, ‘life’ is whatever anyone wants it to be. Moreover, because the meaning is assumed to be obvious, it is hard to argue with such words when used as a basis for aesthetics; the dissenter is made to sound either like a cold postmodernist, or a card-carrying misanthrope. Compliments to some, but you get my point. While Milan Kundera’s nonfiction provides a model for Wood’s book, the critic seems not to mind that his language echoes the rhetoric parodied in the Czech’s most famous novel: that is, the Communist kitsch slogan, ‘Long live life!’

Thankfully, most of the other surprises in the book are welcome ones. It is a light-footed work, fluidly fragmentary in nature. Wood normally writes with high style, and the comparative lack of polish here becomes him. His readers will already be well-acquainted with his solid philosophical thoughts on fiction-his trunk; the difference now is that he has decided to show more of his roots. Surprisingly, it turns out the latter have all this time been twisting and grappling with people like Roland Barthes and Viktor Shklovsky. Having honestly tested his thoughts for so long against opposing ideas, rather than just blindly defending himself against them, Wood has consolidated his particular view of fiction, and might now be seen as comfortably breathing out.

Wood’s framework is ambitious in its desire to encapsulate the story of western fiction as a whole, and flexible in its being made up of compact essays and aphoristic passages, which allow him to turn easily between literary history and personal whim. The scope bends to and away from him like the instrument of free indirect style he so admires. A good critic is usually a good street-sweeper, and some time is spent in the valuable activity of clearing away stale stock wisdom: the dogma of showing over telling, stingy absolute distinctions between flat and round characters, simplistic notions of realism both for and against. Wood writes well about the tension authors today experience in reconciling their individual language with the overflowing public one-email, media, pop culture, advertising, and so on-the solutions to which sometimes make for tiresome reading. His identification of different types of free indirect style is likewise good, particularly the spotting of ‘chorus narration,’ where a narrative reflects the author’s voice as well as that of some unidentified group or individual. This might have been taken further, to include the complex business of parody, or other ambiguous kinds of narration that are still not omniscient in any traditional sense, whether it’s the warped voices conjuring Gogol’s weird world, an actual household telling the story (subtly, almost invisibly) in John McGahern, or anything at all performing it in James Joyce. Perhaps Wood is wise to have stopped where he did though, since codification threatens to rob a work of its luster.

The key figures Wood employs to chart the course of modern fiction include Cervantes, Diderot, Flaubert, and Dostoevsky. The line-up could be argued with, of course, but any history of fiction told in terms of individuals is going to be hugely debatable: somebody can always think of a better example, an earlier instance, and the qualifications never end. On the whole, Wood’s take on the story of literature is engaging, and articulated with contagious affection. In passing he also manages a simple victory, one that others have sought to accomplish, but mostly just attempted with negligible results. He suggests what reading might actually do for a person. It sounds modest, but is in reality no mean feat: it might educate you in moral complexity and sympathy. It might make you a better ‘noticer of life.’

No reader’s tastes should be expected to match up with any other’s, and certainly no one who has toyed with making a pantheon of favorite writers for themselves has ever found a friend who did much more than humor them with a smile. Still, I was a little surprised by how often I disagreed with Wood’s judgments about language. Perhaps I would feel differently were I better acquainted with some of the authors he singles out for treatment, but because he has quoted at length and reads closely, focusing on those elements that are supposed to be clear from the passage excerpted, I am not so sure. A lengthy passage from Henry James’ What Maisie Knew, one Wood loves and lengthily discusses as a an example of balanced free indirect style, left me indifferent. I like what I’ve read of James, but I found the description of a lady’s “eyebrows arched like skipping-ropes and thick black stitching, like ruled lines for musical notes on beautiful white gloves” to be visually vague and confusing, and too writerly words for a little girl. I don’t care much that the simile nods to Maisie’s world with its skipping ropes; probably I am not as excited about free indirect style on principle as Wood is.

To stay on James for a minute, Wood criticizes Nabokov’s complaint, voiced in a letter to Edmund Wilson, about some cartoonish cigar imagery in The Aspern Papers. James colors the tip red for a certain effect, to light up a dark scene, when in actual fact cigar ash is more like white, and doesn’t really have a ‘tip’ to speak of. It might seem stubborn to make so much of minor gaffes, and surely it doesn’t say too much about James’ value or lack thereof as a writer, but still the criticisms seem to me valid, and I didn’t get why Wood couldn’t acknowledge it. Instead he tries to absolve James by coining an otherwise useful concept of relaxed ‘off-duty detail.’ There is no need for a sailor to be equally alert at all times, and nobody should begrudge him his time off, but I would still hope he remembers which way is north. Wood digs into a passage from Updike’s new novel about terrorism, and it is hard not to agree with him; but some pages later he attacks the same writer’s simile likening rain drops to amoebae as an example of excruciating aestheticism; the same simile struck this reader as exact and delightful, and it made me want to seek out some of the author’s earlier work.

Judgments like the above may help account for why Wood is usually a likable reader, and occasionally an exasperating critic: his tastes tend to be more catholic than his prescriptions. A benign flaw, as far as they go, but if only it would make him think twice before prescribing! What most annoys his detractors, I would venture, is when he act as if authors should all be writing in accordance with his own precepts, but then, in the face of favorites who go against his grain (e.g. Kafka, Beckett), makes vague allowances for them as, in fact, realists too, explaining the issue away with lawyerly distinctions. Cop argot speaks of ‘wear and carry’ offenders-people whose propensity to crime is heightened by a decision to habitually keep a fire-arm on their person. One would likewise prefer it if Wood sometimes left the realism-gun at home.

My little argument with Wood’s appraisals of style kept recurring, so much so that I was eventually led to keep score, marking ticks, crosses, and dashes (for a shrug of the shoulders) in the margins, not necessarily presuming to do so on the authors, just on the particular phrases or passages of theirs that Wood dealt with as exemplary writing. Along with a number of ticks, I gave plenty of crosses, adamant dashes and qualified ticks (sometimes a tick stabbed with a dash) to his excerpts. My initial impressions didn’t change much with Wood’s explications. A poet-teacher once told a class I was in that hunting for still more meaning in a poem can be like squeezing out the last drop of juice from an orange-no, he corrected himself, the last drop from a bag of cask wine, dubbed ‘goon’ where I’m from. In some of Wood’s running interpretations, I thought he was trying too hard to get the last of the lyrical goon out, which may or may not have been hidden in the silver plastic folds.

Wood loves Bellow’s take on a cigar-”the white ghost of the leaf with all its veins and its fainter pungency”—which is fine. But if we subject it to the treatment that he applies to others, the question might fairly arise: fainter than what? Than the white ghost of the leaf, presumably. The comparison asks us to rank color and smell on a single scale: a nice-sounding phrase, but, unless this involves a new form of synaesthesia, one that signifies little. And doesn’t faintness also contradict pungency? On the other side, Wood did very much make me want to go back and read more of Chekhov, and to get better acquainted with books by all those that provoked ticks, some of whom I’d until then been wary of, for whatever reasons.

In that business about the cigar, I’ve suggested that Wood disagrees with Nabokov merely for not liking Henry James. In truth, there is a little more to it than that, for Nabokov is a specter that looms over this book. One wishes the ghost of that author were more productive in these parts, just incidentally, if only to make blurbers blush more often in their comparisons, and to apologize for his contagious use of the word ‘lovingly.’ Few other recent writers in English are so quoted as an absolute authority on literary matters, on all matters, maybe, as Nabokov, so it is good that Wood has decided to meet him head on.Wood, like so many of us, seems to have enormous regard and some deference for Nabokov’s artistic talent and original intelligence. His ambivalence is about the ‘hyper-aestheticism’ of his work, the prominent place he gave to visual detail, which came at the expense of other kinds. “Nabokov’s fiction is always becoming propaganda on behalf of good noticing,” he writes, “hence on behalf of itself. There are beauties that are not visual at all, and Nabokov has poorish eyes for those. How else to explain his dismissals of Mann, Camus, Faulkner, Stendahl, James? He judges them, essentially, for not being stylish enough, and for not being visually alert enough.” The first half of this is satisfying. Nabokov could indeed be pedantic, and his judgment was occasionally marred by the blindness that over-seeing can effect. Kafka never tells you what Gregor’s beetle body looks like in ‘Metamorphosis,’ and he stressed to an illustrator the importance of not disclosing the image, of how he had expressly kept the reader in the dark-and yet, the lepidopterist says he knows exactly which beetle it is, and he draws it on the blackboard for the benefit of his students!

While it is agreeable to score this puny strike against genius (dead, maddeningly arch genius), I’m not sure that in the end imagery can be made to account so easily for the Russian’s reading habits. Among contemporaries he liked books by Salinger, Beckett, Queneau, and Stegner. Beckett and Queneau aren’t really that visual, certainly not in the way Nabokov was. All of them may have deliberate styles (and why not?), but it’s a bit of a jump on Wood’s part to extend noticing to style to stylishness, and then to call that narrow. So Nabokov dismissed a whole host of writers his contemporaries thought were geniuses; in that he was little different from many other great writers, who have always tended to view their peers in their own special way, whether it be through naturally faceted insect eyes, or through manufactured fish-eye lenses. It is odd Wood of all people forgets this, given his critical take on so many of his roundly lauded contemporaries. Nobody should begrudge him his opinion; whatever we demand of critics-sometimes everything and its opposite-he, too, is just one person. Yes, style and visual detail were key; but Wood knows there is also Nabokov’s famous allergy to ideas, to philosophy or sociology or politics being obviously integrated into fiction. Most importantly though, there’s structure. Nabokov was obsessed with complex literary stratagems and structures.

In a book that has sections devoted to ‘Narrative,’ ‘Detail,’ ‘Language’ and ‘Dialogue,’ it is strange and telling that there isn’t one given to structure. Wood hits on it only inadvertently, when treating of the history of character. While commenting on the story of David in the Bible, he informs us: “What matters to the Bible writer is not the state of David’s mind, but the whole story, the entirety of David’s life.” This is great, and couldn’t be put more clearly. I thought Wood might use the occasion to stop and say something about a kind of fiction, and a way of looking at fiction, that doesn’t value psychology or realism in its own right quite so much as he does. The highest grade of fiction (pre-modern, modern, postmodern, whatever) seems to me to be almost always seriously invested in a justifying shape, or structure, or pattern-perhaps in the end these are all the same thing-in any event, it’s invested in ‘the whole story.’ A good reader soaks up the drama on the ground, but, later, can pull back and make out the world in question from afar: its airborne diorama of people, the echoes coming from the theme-mountains, the intermingling rivers of imagery that run throughout. It’s the talent of the best readers to ride with the traveling bird, perceive where it cunningly buries its nuts, and recall the exact spots a season or more later.

Not that we need a return to endless exegesis of plot, or insist that every reviewer be a multiple times re-reader, but it would be good if criticism were at least more alive to such things. Though few people are so astute, Wood often appears more interested in a writer’s ideas than in how those ideas govern form. Busy unraveling DNA, he can seem oblivious to physiognomy. In elucidating his layered conception of realism, in his pre-occupation with locating central psychological and philosophical germs, with ‘life-ness,’ he sometimes misses how a certain kind of realism overloads a story with the stuff of reality, or, worse, disguises the lack of one. In narrative terms, some so-called life-like novels boil down, basically, to straight lines, while some so-called artificial ones succeed in being spheres or trees. Wood needn’t have gone to his postmodern contemporaries to find a critique of realism’s limitations to spar with. Personally, I think he could have found an excellent one from Robert Louis Stevenson.

“Any work of art, as it proceeds toward completion, too often-I had almost written always-loses in force and poignancy of main design. Our little air is swamped and dwarfed among hardly relevant orchestration; our little passionate story drowns in a deep sea of descriptive eloquence or slipshod talk.” That is from ‘A Note on Realism’, written in 1883. Elsewhere, in ‘A Humble Remonstrance,’ Stevenson says that “a proposition of geometry is a fair and luminous parallel for a work of art.” The Scotsman wrote the latter essay in reproof to Henry James, instantly causing James to befriend him. Whether or not you like Stevenson’s fiction, or think that he succeeds at his own ideal, there is in his words much that novelists of any age or stamp might chew on. In so much contemporary realism, not just ‘commercial realism,’ as Wood puts it, some of us find precisely too much ‘descriptive eloquence and slipshod talk,’ not enough vital and reward-bearing ‘main design.’ (This reader, if it’s not too curmudgeonly to say so, tends to encounter more of the latter in new Asian movies than in new American novels.) How structure in fiction might decide and shape everything that is present and everything that is absent, as if biologically: this question is at the heart of Paul Valery’s skepticism about realism, and Wood doesn’t really do it justice. He writes as if plot were identical with structure; because he is not so interested in plot, he leaves both too well alone. At the same time, he defends realism against arbitrariness by pleading narrative consistency, as though this were the same thing as structural and thematic unity. Valery’s abstract criticisms of fiction were generally limiting in the extreme, but in their way they are far stronger and more consistent than Wood makes them out to be. Probably they remain a form of kryptonite for most novelists, but some good and great writers have been influenced and fortified by them.

Wood sees metaphor as behaving like fiction itself (‘it floats a rival reality’), so it is interesting to look at his own similes and metaphors. They frequently return to images of service: valets, servants, tippers, tutors, even a croupier materializes for a moment in this book. Wood has a soft spot for the word ‘truancy,’ but the adventures of his truants sometimes merely seem to refer back to the genteel boarding-house that kept them. The imagery corresponds with his notion of literature serving life, of the writer constantly striving to get nearer to it by stripping off our conventional perceptions layer by layer. This is a transcendent view of literature, of course, and an admirable one. Nevertheless, it can risk tautology. If art is inseparable from life, and will always use and reflect it, what better for art than to let it create the new life or dream that it decides upon? What we know of art is that it exists and that it enchants; it’s criticism that serves. Wood is still a masterly servant. An unusual request maybe, but I would only ask that he serve literature a little more, and ‘life’ a little less.

Back to top ↑

Sign up for Our Email Newsletter