The queen of the south book free
James Wood, once a Guardian book reviewer, is now professor of the practice of literary criticism at Harvard. Despite its clunkily repeated preposition, the latter job description spells out a defiant faith in practice as opposed to theory. The theorists who used to be so academically modish had little knowledge of literature and even less love for it.
The aim of their endeavours was to dispense with what they criticised, since literature was at best the residue of a false consciousness, a tissue of oppressive untruths overdue for demolition. Wood, proud to be a practitioner, rebukes such arrogant scepticism.
Even Barthes, whom he admires, is accused of possessing a 'sensitive, murderous' contempt for fictional realism and the reality it upholds. Wood is not of their number. By examining the minutiae of character, narrative and style in a range of fictional works that starts with the Bible and ends with Coetzee and Pynchon, he fondly and delicately pieces back together what the deconstructors put asunder.
This is, as its humdrum title proclaims, a manual, an exploration of writerly craft. Though it deftly reveals how fiction works, its secret ambitions are grander. With simple, beautiful precision, his question sums up his credo: the novelists he most admires, Austen and Woolf, James and Bellow among them, bravely launch themselves into deep waters, relying on the momentary inventiveness of language to animate the worlds they are inventing. They do not take an inventory of things that already exist; like God, they make reality up as they go along, ecstatically improvising.
Wood shows how they do so in his analysis of a paragraph extracted from James's What Maisie Knew or a single innocuous sentence from Woolf's The Waves. But before starting to analyse, he pauses to appreciate the texts on which he is about to perform surgery, as if saying grace before carving the meat. His gratitude is heartfelt, as his exclamations testify. It is years since anyone in a university has been permitted to express such delight, which smacks, according to those starchy theorists, of a naively consumerist approach to books.
Wood is unashamed: 'I am consumed by this sentence,' he says of Woolf's remark that: 'The day waves yellow with all its crops. The question of how fiction works can only be investigated by considering how the world is constituted and, most important of all, how we should live in it. Hence the autobiographical asides in which Wood merges art and life. He reads Beatrix Potter to his daughter and wonders how a novelist would describe the bald patch on his head.
Examining a priapic rampage in Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth, he remarks: 'To have a erection in the morning I suspect that Wood agrees with DH Lawrence's description of the novel as 'the bright book of life'.
Fictional techniques augment and intensify life. The novel's jumbling of different tempi coaxes us to comprehend the jittery flux of phenomena and the narrative method called free indirect style enables us to slip in and out of the closed consciousness of others. For Wood, this empathetic venture is the highest and most humane benefit of fiction.
McEwan's Atonement, as he says, is about the novelistic virtue of seeing the world from someone else's viewpoint and the danger or wickedness of failing to do so.
He is testy with critics who reduce characters to clots of ineffectual verbal signifiers. In doing so, they disclose their inadequacy as human beings, since they lack the capacity for discovery and astonishment that novels seek to provoke. Wood reproves this 'refusal to be taught by literature about other people' and says that 'to deny character is to deny the novel' and that, he implies, is an aesthetic blasphemy tantamount to denying God.
Perhaps to deny the novel is worse than to revile the deity, because it disparages human creativity. The old manipulative narrator in the sky is a marginal presence throughout How Fiction Works.
The only novel Wood has published is called The Book Against God and his criticism suggests that all books, at least if they are novels, engage in a competitive argument with a God who sought to monopolise creative power.
Novels contradict God by renouncing a supposedly divine omniscience and Wood's harshest comment on Updike's dreadful Terrorist is to call his presumptuous, supercilious attribution of thoughts to the Muslim hero 'theological'. Leaping ahead from the Bible to Shakespeare to Dostoevsky, Wood renders the sacred narrative obsolete and comes close to doing the same for Shakespeare.
David in the Old Testament addresses God, just as Macbeth entreatingly addresses the theatrical audience. But in Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov's soliloquies are conversations with the reader, who can penetrate thoughts that remain unvoiced. The novel is the product of Hegel's 'secularised spirituality' and must, as Wood concedes, 'be understood religiously'.
Its characters want to be known, which means to be forgiven; in God's absence, the reader's conscience has to scrutinise their confessions and arrive at a proper judgment. Wood's worshipful attitude to fiction inclines him to be dismissive about competing literary forms. He sees Shakespeare as a would-be novelist, because the intimate domestic wrangling of the Macbeths is inaudible and inaccessible in the public forum of drama.
He is recurrently snippy about poetry, because poets, indifferent to other people and concerned only with 'the strenuous display of style', write primarily about themselves. He contrasts two accounts of birdsong by Browning and Chekhov: the former polishes phrases to record the 'careless rapture' of lyrical sound, while the latter exerts himself to imagine how a peasant would really hear a bird.
The language of poetry sweats with an 'obsessive excruciation', whereas a novelist whimsically and randomly mobilises descriptive details with 'easy joy'. Wood quotes a poem in which Auden, matily mocking his friend Isherwood, notes how 'plain and awkward' novels are by contrast with the operatic virtuosity of poems. He does not mention Isherwood's telling reply: Auden's metaphors, he thought, were produced like rabbits from hats and the sleight of hand was probably fraudulent.
We are offered a choice between poetic solipsism and the curious, generous altruism inculcated by fiction. The argument may be a little glib, but the practice of literary criticism is about stimulating thought and encouraging us to refine our responses; the appropriate response is usually 'Yes, but The Observer Books. Celebrate the force of fiction. James Wood's How Fiction Works makes a passionate case for the novel, arguing that it puts other forms of creative writing firmly in the shade, says Peter Conrad.
Buy How Fiction Works at the Guardian bookshop. Peter Conrad. Published on Sun 17 Feb
How to save indesign as
What constitutes a 'telling' detail? When is a metaphor successful? Is realism realistic? Why do most endings of novels disappoint? In the tradition of E. Forster's Aspects of the Novel and Milan Kundera's The Art of the Novel, How Fiction Works is a study of the main elements of fiction, such as narrative, detail, characterization, dialogue, realism, and style. In his first full-length book of criticism, one of the most prominent critics of our time takes the machinery of story-telling apart to ask a series of fundamental questions.
Wood ranges widely, from Homer to Beatrix Potter, from the Bible to John Le Carre, and his book is both a study of the techniques of fiction-making and an alternative history of the novel. Playful and profound, it incisively sums up two decades of bold, often controversial, and now classic critical work, and will be enlightening to writers, readers, and anyone interested in what happens on the page.
It has the quality all useful works of criticism should have: refined taste, keen observation, and the ability to make the reader argue, passionately, with it' Financial Times show more. Review Text "There aren't many book reviewers whose leaving one magazine to go to work for another would make the headlines. But then there aren't many book reviewers like James Wood" show more. Review quote Exceptionally illuminating It should be compulsory reading for anyone in the reviewing trade and committed to memory before aspiring writers put pen to paper.
In , he won the National Magazine Award for reviews and criticism. He was the chief literary critic at the Guardian from to , and a book critic at the New Republic from to He has published a number of books with Cape, including How Fiction Works, which has been translated into thirteen languages. Rating details. Book ratings by Goodreads. Goodreads is the world's largest site for readers with over 50 million reviews. We're featuring millions of their reader ratings on our book pages to help you find your new favourite book.
Close X. Learn about new offers and get more deals by joining our newsletter. Sign up now. Follow us. Coronavirus delivery updates.