If you like to read—and why else would you be reading this?—critic James Wood’s How Fiction Works can both annoy and exhilarate. Not in equal measure, to be sure. Wood’s blithe assumption of canonicity and ranking, his dismissal of such lesser forms of writing as drama and verse, and his insistence on realism as a kind of alt-religion (the only real writing, of which all other forms are but a shadow) can be a potent reminder of what’s irritating about critics in the first place. But so what? That all pales beside the mere fact of a guy lives to read, who isn’t afraid to express admiration for his favourites, and who can subtly unpack books, paragraphs even single sentences to show how and why they work. We know characters better than we know our loved ones, because we are inside the heads of the former, and it is that experience that teaches us about actual humans. (“Not real,” as Margaret Atwood’s Jimmy desperately tries to explain to Oryx and Crake’s child-like humanoids, “can tell us about real.”)
Best of all, almost every point Wood makes gives rise to the finest of all possible responses, not “Exactly!” or “Idiot!” but “Yes, but…” He even does it to himself: some 250 pages of robust defence of realism ends by remarking that ‘almost all the great 20th-century realist novels also reflect on their own making, and are full of artifice. All the greatest realists, from Austen to Alice Munro, are at the same time great formalists.” It’s not realism he was talking about after all, but life, “life brought to life by the highest artistry.” A marvellous, thought-provoking book.