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More theory, please

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 this

By Terry Eagleton   March 2008

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…

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