Feature

How Fiction Works by James Wood

Literary critic James Woods explains the techniques of the writer's craft and why great books succeed, but the real fun is in watching how a brilliant observer reads.

How Fiction Works by James Wood (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $24)

There are right ways and wrong ways to write fiction, says New Yorker critic James Wood. Not all characters need to be “rounded,” realistic figures, but each and every one needs to be penetratingly seen. Descriptive details prove telling only when they radiate a palpable “thisness.” The narrative strategy known as “free indirect style” can be easily botched: Characters come alive when their thoughts are reflected occasionally in a narrator’s choice of language. Use the same trick too liberally, though, and an otherwise vivid character comes to seem like the narrator’s puppet.

The “great pleasure” of Wood’s slim new manifesto has little to do with rule-making, said Lev Grossman in Time. The fun is in watching a brilliant observer read. “Even if you don’t understand what he’s talking about” when Wood cites this or that literary device, the exemplary passages he’s culled from Tolstoy, Bellow, and other of his favorite writers will “slay you.” To say merely that Wood is “the finest literary critic writing in English today” is to diminish him, said Gideon Lewis-Kraus in the Los Angeles Times. Wood’s “sentences are terrifically animated,” at once “buoyant and momentous.” More important, he’s interested in the minutiae of craft only because he wants to explain why great fiction succeeds in revealing deep truths about life itself.

Wood clearly has some blind spots, said Louis Bayard in Salon.com. He’s “always been impatient with what he calls ‘the essential juvenility of plot.’” His treatise thus “ignores what draws many people to stories in the first place”—the “chance to go on a journey, to see one event follow another in a way that is surprising and moving and possibly transforming.” In the end, though, Wood admires the novel too much to propose that his own preferences should impose limits on any of its practitioners. “The novel,” he writes, “is the great virtuoso of exceptionalism: It always wriggles out of the rules thrown around it.” On that point, he couldn’t be more astute.

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