'How Fiction Works' Works Just Fine, Thank You

'How Fiction Works,' By James Wood

I’d love to rip apart English professor James Wood’s distilled volume of literary wisdom with a series of detached, postmodern, snarling riffs. But I can’t. “How Fiction Works” is just too pleasant a read. With a soft, avuncular tone, Wood sets out to investigate a fundamental question—how authors utilize both verisimilitude and artifice to invoke the real—by surveying a series of writing fundamentals. He weaves in and out of novels and ideas through a series of thought-stanzas until reaching his goal: a satisfying explanation for good fiction that incorporates both psychological insight and aesthetics.The books in his study serve as examples and lessons. Robert McCloskey’s beloved children’s book “Make Way for Ducklings” offers one of the “purest examples of irony” through its use of free indirect style. The same technique also allows the fiction reader to inhabit a young girl’s confusion in Henry James’s novel “What Maisie Knew.” The juxtaposition is a touch precious—just a sappy soundtrack away from a literary criticism Hallmark moment—but it plays into Wood’s theory of fiction.If, as Wood suggests, fiction is a space between mimicry and invention, a “house,” then its creation depends on the writer’s ability to construct a framework in which truth or “lifeness” can occur. With his “Godlike powers of omniscience,” the novelist is able to outwit convention and makes his work approach the truth. The truth can come out in surprising metaphors—the French writer Celine “shocks us out of the familiar by likening rush hour in Paris to catastrophe”—or with details and characters that remind us of our surroundings. It’s an insightful recipe for literature, enchanting in its simplicity.Wood is both a critic and a professor, and it shows: his prose, easy and approachable, reads like the transcript of an English class held around a pot of hot cocoa in Lamont Cafe. To ensure the reader’s comfort, Wood shies away from literary terminology, though more technical criticism lurks in the lengthy footnotes.When describing fruitful passages, Wood frequently interrupts himself with his own enthusiasm—“What a piece of writing this is!” or “What an amazingly blasphemous little mélange.” At times, his selections read like a “best of” edition of the Western canon—the most poignant selections of Stendhal, Woolf, and Nabokov. By the end of the book, you want nothing more than to curl up with one of Wood’s favorites and continue to marvel.Wood’s insistence on the process and the construction of fiction amplifies his argument. Unlike recent works of popular literary criticism focused solely on the interpretation of texts, “How Fiction Works” illuminates novels from the inside out. For Wood, Henry James’s description of a cigar’s “red tip” seen through a window is not the point of departure for endless interpretation, but rather a way of connecting his fictional world to reality.Viewed in context, this cigar has no explicit connection to the thread of James’s “The Aspern Papers;” its inclusion, to the stingy reader, may seem superfluous and irrelevant. But a writer who wishes to create realism and truth does not stick only to necessary details. Life, Wood argues, is “full of surplus detail,” like the cigar. If reality does not distinguish between indispensable and “gratuitous” details, neither should the writer. In scrutinizing works, Wood “asks a critic’s questions and offers a writer’s answers.” His experience in both professions makes him particularly apt to do so.Still, readers looking for a revolutionary approach to literature may be disappointed with Wood’s results. “How Fiction Works,” down to its small size and faded auburn cover, emits a distinctly quaint feel. At times, Wood’s writing is tweedy and old-fashioned. He returns again and again to Flaubert, “as if unable to stop rereading the old letters of a former lover.” Wood is right to idolize Flaubert—his eye for detail and his polished technique exemplify Wood’s aesthetic ideal of literary realism, and he offers an ideal model for writers aiming at Wood-worthy work. But surely someone equally exemplary has set pen to paper since the mid-nineteenth century.If you’ve ever read a book and enjoyed it, most of what Wood writes will echo with familiarity. The “truth,” the “lifeness” that he seeks to explain, is a driving force not only for writers, but for readers, too. In his short book, Wood creates his own separate space—a few hundred pages in which the reader can explore, along with Wood, what makes fiction matter.