James Wood's study of the workings of fiction displays an uncannily well-tuned ear. But for all his undoubted skills as a critic, he lacks the theoretical armoury to take on a subject as general as thisby Terry Eagleton / March 28, 2008 / Leave a comment
Published in March 2008 issue of Prospect Magazine
>How Fiction Works, by James Wood
(Jonathan Cape, £16.99)
Few people are as deft at dissecting a novel as James Wood, staff writer on the New Yorker and professor of literary criticism at Harvard. At one point in this elegant little book, Wood subjects what he calls a “really dirty” sentence from Philip Roth to two pages of tenacious analysis, tracking its baroque flourishes and mock-pedantic syntax with admirable self-assurance. There is also a marvellous footnote on Thomas Pynchon’s “vaudevillian” fondness for “silly names, japes, mishaps, disguises, farcical errors.” Wood combines an almost boyish enthusiasm for fiction—he is forever exclaiming “how wonderful!,” “what a stunning paragraph!”—with a cool eye for its wiles and stratagems. He also seems to have read everything from War and Peace to Make Way for Ducklings, though his reading rarely strays beyond the frontiers of the so-called developed world. When it comes to the texture and cadence of a sentence, Wood’s uncannily well-tuned ear is hard to improve on.
This kind of talent for close reading is sadly passé. Students of literature these days can say things like “that ominous moon symbol crops up again in the second stanza,” but not, as a critic once wrote of a line in TS Eliot, “there’s something very sad about the punctuation.” When Wood writes of the way in which Flaubert’s writing refuses to become involved in the emotion of the material, he is practising a precious kind of criticism that is in danger of vanishing. The same goes for his claim that the feeble storylines of Iris Murdoch’s novels are at odds with their complex moral analyses. Today’s literature students do not commonly talk, as Wood does here, of the way authors may “loan” a word or phrase to one of their characters, or of the fact that Shakespeare’s characters always sound like themselves but always sound like Shakespeare as well. The only blemish on this excellent account of author-character relations is Wood’s assumption that Jane Eyre is a reliable first-person narrator, whereas in fact she is—like all of Charlote Brontë’s protagonists—malicious, self-serving and partisan.