Wood Work 

A critic on the truth about fiction.

James Wood — staff writer at The New Yorker; lecturer in English and American literature at Harvard — is a literary critic whom writers and critics love to admire. Ask Cynthia Ozick, Daniel Mendelsohn, Susan Sontag, Harold Bloom, Christopher Hitchens, and Martin Amis.

And then there's the opposite camp: writers and critics out to bring Wood down a notch or two — or three. Make that a dozen or more times in the words of writer Walter Kirn in his front-page review of Wood's latest book, How Fiction Works (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), in The New York Times Book Review on August 17th.

That's where we read that Wood is a "modest self-marketer" because his latest book, addressed to the "common reader," is in fact no common reader. How would Kirn know? Because, as Wood explains and as Kirn reminds us, the works Wood references throughout How Fiction Works issue from Wood's very own library. (And that includes such uncommon titles as The Iliad, War and Peace, Madame Bovary, and Atonement.)

Those quotes and references in support of Wood's arguments? They're dropped by Wood (Kirn's word for it) "copiously." And what's worse: Wood writes from the "detached, big-picture perspective of an orbiting critical satellite," which is true to a point. Wood's a critic writing from the perspective of a reader who's read a hell of a lot, and what's more, he remembers what it is he's read and circled that experience with his own brilliant observations. But Wood "detached"? Never. Poor Gustave Flaubert and Henry James, however, writers Wood admires ... those two, according to Kirn, are worse than detached. They're "semimonastic introverts," which means they fit nicely, again according to Kirn, with Wood's "vicarish" ways.

In no way the vicar: author David Foster Wallace, whom Kirn praises for being among the blessed contemporary writers of fiction whose talent lies in "exalting the vernacular, absorbing the anarchic and ennobling the vulgar," which puts Wallace at odds with Wood's "eminently resistible prose style" matched with his "donnish, finicky persona." But Kirn does grant Wood this: "[T]here is one question this volume answers conclusively: Why Readers Nap."

Kirn has a possible point, if he's referring to the discussion in How Fiction Works on "free indirect style," which Wood, in his opening notes on narrative, defines as the collapse between the voice of the author and the voice of a character.

Early naptime, then, for the common reader? Not when Wood uses Robert McCloskey's Make Way for Ducklings (a book out of Wood's very own library!) to make his point — and to further bring home the point: Henry James' What Maisie Knew, John Updike's Terrorist, and here we go: David Foster Wallace in his short story "The Suffering Channel," which Wood identifies as "unidentified free indirect style," and he doesn't care for it one bit.

Here's what Wood does care for, though. In fact, he more than cares. He's built his critical reputation on it and sees it as the reason we read: truthfulness to the way things are, the real. But Wood has a better word for it: "lifeness" — "life on the page, life brought to different life by the highest artistry," whether through narrative, detail, character, language, or dialogue.

Take a phrase from Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, a line from Virginia Woolf's The Waves, or a paragraph from D.H. Lawrence's Sea and Sardinia. Wood does and shows us how language works and how it works on us, and it doesn't hurt to be reminded. In fact, it's a pleasure.

A primer: That's what Wood calls How Fiction Works — Wood, that teacher who taught you to read with greater attention and with a better appreciation for an author's artistry. Walter Kirn, who sees Wood as an enemy of innovation, a throwback, an out-of-touch "critical satellite," couldn't be more wrong. Common readers everywhere: How Fiction Works is your refresher course.

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