How Fiction Works
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
22 July 2008
James Wood’s third book of literary criticism, How Fiction Works, is not a manual for critical theorists; Wood rejects patently theoretical approaches to literary analysis that ignore aesthetic pleasure in favor of philosophical deconstruction in its various forms.
Though Wood esteems critics like Roland Barthés and Gérard Genette, he argues (here and in his previous books, The Broken Estate  and The Irresponsible Self ) that post-structural and postmodern cultural theorists have often pulverized literary texts, plundering their pages, particlizing knowledge and imagination, and excising the author – sweeping the leavings into the dustbins of antiquity. For the most part, literary academics are the only ones still practicing this kind of critical raiding.
However, Wood is theoretical in his fashion. In How Fiction Works Wood practices and promotes “close reading,” defending literature’s structural sanctity. This style of literary analysis, he suggests, best explicates how literary novelists illuminate the processes of lived experience.
Paying close attention to narration, detail, dialogue, and character, Wood discourages us from reading fiction as reality’s representation while teaching us to read realist fiction as the artful distortion of human action. That is, literary novelists want, at bottom, readers to imagine actions and inhabit experiences that force them to interrogate our own. Wood backs up his provocative assertions with his intimidating and encyclopedic knowledge of Western literary history, especially French, British, and Russian fiction.
Wood argues that novelists ask readers to serve as mute interlocutors, silent priests, if you will, listening to the confessional soliloquies of characters like Raskolnikov, the protagonist of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. But overhearing the thoughts of novelistic characters eventually shifts readers out of the rectory and into the “heavens.”
Omniscient, outside and above the text, readers are not asked to like or dislike characters, they are asked to follow the novelist’s careful analysis of human consciousness, sympathizing with and accepting the sharp complexities of being.
Given the power to hear Raskolnikov contemplating murder, not as eloquent actor on stage or poetic repentant, but as a regular man thinking, we, readers, have replaced the theatrical spectators and the Biblical God as the judgmental but ultimately, forgiving audience of human experience.
Wood, then, is making a philosophical argument for fiction as the best way to gather understanding about humanity. The book might have also been called, “How Fiction Works to Make You Feel, See, and Think.”
For Wood novelistic realism is the most pleasurable and dexterous form of literary art. Some will grumble, chafing against Wood’s disinterest in science fiction, outré postmodernism, magical realism, or, he recent coinage, hysterical realism. He’s an acolyte of classical modernism; it’s unsurprising that among his exemplars of high realism are novelists like Gustav Flaubert, Virginia Woolf, and Philip Roth. Their fictions express truths about the intricacies of psychology and the life-invigorating pleasures of art.
Whether he’s noting a blazing metaphoric phrase or parsing a free indirect description of a character’s stream of consciousness, Wood narrates his own enriching verities in this gracefully written, witty, and hyper-intelligent critique.
A truncated version of this review appeared in the Dallas Morning News