How Fiction Works

At its modest best, James Wood?s first book-length study reasserts an idea that most average readers already assume: that literature is a reflection and imitation of reality, that art connects us to the world, and that style serves as our best measure of that connection. Of course, literary academics, for the most part, deny most of these once commonplace notions. And Wood -- one of the most celebrated and controversial writers on fiction currently working -- isn?t exactly sure who his audience is for this otherwise sensible and cleanly written meditation. Make no mistake: far from a how-to or beginner's guide to fiction, this collection of 123 little pieces ranges from instructive anecdotes to head-on engagements with some heavyweight critical theorists. This impressive range produces its own drawback -- Wood maintains multiple levels of diction that will confuse those expecting the graceful style on display in so many of his much-admired essays.

Wood begins on steady ground, asking the basic, admittedly "old" questions about the art of fiction: "Is realism real? How do we define a successful metaphor? What is a character? When do we recognize a brilliant use of detail in fiction? What is point of view, and how does it work? What is imaginative sympathy? Why does fiction move us?" Despite some meanderings, Wood addresses all these issues with explanations that nicely popularize the more academic responses of sympathetic scholars such as Wayne Booth, Erich Auerbach, and Gerald Graff, none of whom are cited in this often idiosyncratic book. Wood prefers to deal with two of his "favorite twentieth-century critics of the novel": the Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky, and the French structuralist Roland Barthes, both of whom Wood considers "wrong-headed."

So why the extended discussion of Barthes? For one thing, he provides a solid statement of the popular notion (among postmodern theorists) that literature has no relation to an external reality, that the text is just that, words on a page, a world unto itself. Wood admires Barthes?s interest in style, and it?s true that the French critic?s essays display a virtuosity absent from the work of his deconstructionist compatriots. He writes wonderfully on everything from St. Ignatius to food magazines. But Barthes?s view of literary narrative is anti-realist to its core: nothing "happens" in a novel except the language in that novel, which refers to nothing outside itself. This runs counter to everything Wood rightly believes. In his view, Barthes (along with writers as diverse as William Gass, Rick Moody, and Patrick Giles) considers artifice and convention in fictional narratives to be proof that realism is impossible. Wood counters simply that neither renders fiction untruthful, and that we need more elastic and nuanced views of what constitutes the reality being depicted.

And here, in a way, is the trouble with Wood?s constant references to "life" and "truth" throughout these blog-like entries. While he admits that the notion of a stable, shared truth begins to erode in the 19th century, he seems to rely on transcendent notions of both in the present. That?s not a bad thing, since common readers are likely to agree. We read and measure what we read by our everyday sense of the world around us, and Wood does too. He cites Aristotle, Samuel Johnson, and George Eliot to the effect that (in Eliot?s words) "rt is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact wit...

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