In 1858, John Ruskin wrote his "Aspects of Drawing," a 244-page
primer on modern form. Rare among Victorian texts, "Aspects"
eschewed grandiose analysis. Instead it stripped art to a series of
straight lines, from object (reality) to art (reality translated and
then illuminated) - from "technique to the world."
This last clause belongs to James Wood, and he uses it to launch
his own formal inquiry, How Fiction Works. Ruskin, Wood argues, had
it right: he cast "a critic's eye over the business of creation."
His authority came not "from his own technique as a draftsman ...
but from what his eye has seen and how well, and his ability to
transmit that vision into prose."
Wood, a staff writer at The New Yorker and former chief literary
critic at the Guardian and The New Republic, is often called
America's preeminent literary critic. In "How Fiction Works," Wood
attempts to do for literature what Ruskin did for drawing: distill
the messy alchemy of art into a single, coherent system.
And for the most part - through 10 chapters, stacked loosely atop
one other, and spilling over at the margins with erudition - he
Drawing on his own vast fund of reading, Wood seeks out those
moments when novelists come closest to achieving "lifeness" - or at
least "the nearest thing to life" - in their art. One of the great
pleasures in reading "How Fiction Works" comes from savoring the
carefully selected passages that Wood chooses to illustrate his
Among these: Henry James letting his adolescent narrator
unconsciously parrot the adults around her in "What Maisie Knew"
("It was on account of these things that mamma got [the governess]
for such low pay, really for nothing..."; Chekhov describing an
adulterer silently eating a melon for a half hour after an
assignation; and Tolstoy noting that a husband's ears suddenly look
different to a wife enamoured of another man in "Anna Karenina."
Wood uses this wonderful romp through some telling moments in
Western literature to talk about some of the basic building blocks
of the novel: narration, detail, character, metaphor, and style.
If this sounds as if this could all get a bit esoteric, well,
best to brace yourself. Wood, who is also a lecturer at Harvard, has
in many ways written an academic text, one that traffics in
established literary theory and history. (Some section titles, taken
at random: "Tragic Dilemmas in the Novel"; "Wordsworth in London";
"Flaubert and Selection.")
"How Fiction Works" requires at least a familiarity with the
"major" Western texts - an ability to differentiate between Stendhal
and Flaubert, Dafoe and James, Dostoyevsky and Nabokov. Here is
Wood, for instance, on "The Brothers Karamazov": "Dostoevskian
character has at least three layers. On the top layer is the
announced motive: Raskolnikov, say, proposes several justifications
for his murder of the old woman. The second layer involves
unconscious motivation, those strange inversions wherein love turns
into hate and guilt expresses itself as poisonous, sickly love. …