There are moments in James Wood’s “How Fiction Works” that are truly impressive displays of scholarly synthesis, as Wood brings two seemingly different texts into conversation with another, pointing out not just the similarities in structure or technique, but also the evolution of that structure/technique over many decades (or even centuries). One reviewer notes in a blurb on the book cover that the pleasure in “How Fiction Works” is in watching James Wood read, and that’s a pretty accurate summation of the entire experience, here.
The problem, though, is that I didn’t really gain much from reading Wood. “How Fiction Works” is not necessarily a history of the novel, though there are moments when it seems (or wants) to be. And it certainly isn’t comprehensive enough to even begin to cover the history of all fictional techniques, though (again), there are moments when this seems to drive Wood’s book. And though it sometimes attempts to be instructional, this is not a book for beginning (or even intermediate) writers; it is meant to be read and appreciated by serious lovers of fiction, to shed additional light on many of the techniques that educated writers have come to understand and utilize, but–as I said–it doesn’t offer anything truly new. Nor does it make any particular argument.
So what is it? That’s the real question. And the answer? This is James Wood the book critic simply writing what he knows and putting his knowledge on display for those readers and writers who already adore him. This is James Wood trying to solidify his position as a highly intelligent and influential voice in the literary world. It’s just a collection of…stuff. Really smart stuff, really intelligent anecdotes and quotes and juxtaposed readings, but in the end, just a bunch of stuff, with the catch-all title of “How Fiction Works.” Really, this book is more about getting to know James Wood, branding him and marketing him as “the highly intelligent and influential voice,” than it is about the workings of fiction.