Wednesday, May 10, 2017

How Fiction Works by James Wood

I'm well out of my weight class here, and I know it. Wood is a heavyweight literary critic and has been so for a couple of decades now, while I'm a former reprint editor who has degenerated so far as to run a book-review blog. So what I can I tell you about his 2007 book about how good books work?

Well, I can tell you that Wood has some pretty serious blinders in How Fiction Works. He's swallowed the canon whole, and is good at articulating how a large number of worthy writers achieve the aims he's interested in, but there's no sign that he's ever read anything else. From the evidence of this book, there are no fiction genres, and writers abandoned the first-person narrative long ago, never to return to it.

Even if a reader thinks Wood is a thoughtful and interesting writer, this is an awful lot to swallow.

Admittedly, How Fiction Works is a slim book, not a catalog. But it does aim to show how modern fiction achieves its aims, so one could reasonably expect Wood not to focus on just a tiny slice of that universe of fiction and declare his task done. There are a hell of a lot of professional writers out there who don't give a shit for Flaubert, and Wood's theories ignore all of them. (And probably a whole bunch who appreciate and respect Flaubert but are trying to do something very different.) Not all of those writers are genre, either -- there are major territories of the literary world where Wood's postulates do not hold.

Now, there is an argument that can be made that the stuff Wood focuses on is more important and worthy, that it's the central work of the novel and the spine of the prose literary world for the past few hundred years -- and I'm not entirely dismissive of that argument. But Wood doesn't even gesture in the direction of that argument; he just assumes it as he assumes his readers breathe air. And that, in the early 21st century, is simply not tenable. No respectable theory of fiction can ignore most of fiction.

So I can only say this: this book should rightfully be called How 20th Century Post-Flaubert Mimetic Literary Fiction Works. If it were, I would have no objections to any of Wood's postulates or arguments or ideas. As it is, though, it claims a massive territory it doesn't even try to cover.

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