Wood’s criticism has its own knowing relationship with embarrassment. As a critic, he is able to point out things about texts that are, in retrospect, blindingly, even embarrassingly, obvious. His book is brilliant in many ways, particularly in its analysis of the tired jargon that surrounds much formal criticism of the novel. Narrators, he points out, for instance, are very rarely “omniscient”; “free indirect style” is anything but free. Indeed, what is impressive about How Fiction Works is its practical utility. As Wood writes, “I try to ask some of the essential questions about the art of fiction. Is realism real? How do we define a successful metaphor? What is a character? When do we recognise a brilliant use of detail in fiction?”. The problem with general discussions about fiction is that it is hard enough to write about the details of one novel, let alone to comprehend an entire mode. Wood gets round this sense of enormity (what Pierre Bayard terms “the embarrassment around the work”) by resisting taxonomy. Breaking his thoughts down into aphoristic pieces, he concentrates his arguments around a select group of novels. “This little book”, he tells us, is about works he “actually owns”. All his examples are drawn from “the books at hand” in his study. After reading How Fiction Works, one learns that the authors represented in Wood’s study include, among others, D. H. Lawrence, Saul Bellow, Thomas Hardy, Knut Hamsun, Stendhal, Ian McEwan, Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen, Henry James, John le Carré, David Foster Wallace and large quantities of Flaubert.
more from the TLS here.