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.