Before reading James Wood’s How Fiction Works, read William Deresiewicz’s 2008 review in The Nation, which reproaches Wood—sometimes accurately—for everything he isn’t. Then pick up How Fiction Works and enjoy Wood for everything he is: erudite, passionate, stylistically elegant. True, his compact study of the novel seems to operate, as Deresiewicz complains, in a sealed-off aesthetic temple, disengaging itself from the “dirty, human world.” On the other hand, a large school of critics makes the opposite mistake, trading aesthetic contemplation for excessive analysis of literature’s social context. In light of that trend, Wood’s method becomes an act of quiet rebellion.
More than anything, James Wood is just a man who wants to tug your sleeve and talk about literature for a while. His arguments contain both technical insight and human wisdom, but they’re mainly pegs on which to hang his enthusiasm for specific authors, works, and passages. That enthusiasm is hard to resist; you’ll finish this little seminar feeling as revved up as the professor, armed to the teeth with new ways of talking and thinking about literature. “Until this moment,” as Wood says of reading Saul Bellow, “one had been blandly inhabiting a deprived eloquence.” If you like good criticism, deprive yourself no more and read How Fiction Works.
Bio: Austin Allen is an intern at Guernica. Read his last recommendation “here”:https://guernicamag.com/blog/1460/rec_room_austin_allen_paul_sim/.