Perhaps because critical theory has rendered the subject so fraught, it is unusual these days to see any literary critic dare define the nature of fiction itself. James Wood, however, is an unusual critic. An aesthete who emerged from academia at the height of the theory invasion, Wood has the air of a refugee. Like a dissident writer exiled from his homeland, he bears the mark of the culture he left behind, both in what he has rejected and what he has embraced.
Wood, who was recently took a new job as book critic for the New Yorker, is regularly referred to as ‘the greatest critic of his generation’, or in similar terms, by the likes of Cynthia Ozick and Norman Rush. Given such success, a book like How Fiction Works seems long overdue. Wood has previously published two collections of critical essays, but he has styled his new work rather differently: not as criticism per se, but as a primer on novelistic form, in the tradition of E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel. The book is divided into chapters, each treating a single formal element, such as ‘narration’ or ‘detail’. Although it gives its name to only one of these chapters, in a sense detail is the unacknowledged focus of the book as a whole. Wood is a devotee of detail, whether it be the delicate touches that create our impressions of a character, the subtle balancing of omniscience and subjectivity in third-person narration (‘free indirect style’, for which he has an evident fondness), or the nuance of meaning created by the careful manipulation of word and phrase.