Stuff I’m Reading: How Fiction Works, by James Wood

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08/29/2008 10:00 AM |

The title, it would seem, is more a declaration of simplicity than authoritativeness — this is a pleasantly scattershot dip into the contents of one guy’s bookshelves, and an attempt at edifying pattern-making from there. The usually withheld critical “I” is here in abundance, exclamation points are unusually frequent and examples are given liberally, or made up in a spirit of fun. And, as you might expect, close readings of short passages are instructive — the “How” of the title is the key word here, this is an instructive book for people who’d like to ground readings of literary product in an understanding of literary process.

Wood is essentially talking about stuff that Does It For Him; I like listening to him talk about this stuff. Less so the stuff that Doesn’t Do It For Him, because I like a lot of it. (Especially his frequent bugbear DeLillo, who’s barely mentioned here and just as well for our purposes.) Wood wants fiction to be anchored (via a fresh style), to some sense of “lifeness” — he’s stringent about fiction’s responsibilities if not stodgy about its methods. Still, when he talks about Updike and Nabokov sometimes “freez[ing] detail into a cult of itself”, and “metafictional trivialities”, and “the cost to final seriousness” in Pynchon — these are all incidental references, little spurs sticking out from the course of the book — I go on red alert, because I find great value in the perhaps frivolous aesthetic or perhaps esoteric critical-theoretical purposes that fall outside the workings of fiction as they’re presented here.

Having read this book, I went back to Walter Kirn’s review — I still think it’s an interesting and worthwhile one, for attempting to take Wood’s tastes (what this book does is foreground that “I”), as demonstrated here and in his long paper trail, and arrange them more formally. The better to object to them — but still, I agree with some of them. Even if it is ultimately an overheated critique, and it overshoots in trying to make Wood’s prizing for “the real” into an association with a particular genre, when it’s more a matter of sensibility. But taste is a difference I can put aside here, even more so than I thought was going to be the case.