On Wood’s How Fiction Works

239763547 Giles Harvey in the Village Voice:

One would hope that the reading public is not so guileless nor the art of literature so glibly reducible as a recent publishing epidemic might suggest: How to Read a Book, How to Read a Novel, How to Read a Poem, How Novels Work, How to Read Literature Like a Professor, Reading Like a Writer, How to Read & Why, How to Read Slowly, Why Read? What happened here? No one, to be sure, said reading was supposed to be easy, but do we really need—do we really deserve—all this florid overexplanation? Of course, the only truly indispensable advice about reading, about how to prepare oneself for it—spiritually, if you like—was given by Dr. Johnson to Boswell and is well known: Clear your mind of cant.

Cant, unfortunately, is what many of these books tend to promote (what reasonable person would want to read literature like a professor?). Given its fantastically banal title, the uninitiated reader may be forgiven for assuming that How Fiction Works, the latest book from the celebrated literary critic James Wood, is more of the same, destined for an obscure spot on the remainders shelf somewhere between How Novels Work and How to Read a Novel. Wood, however—who recently joined The New Yorker after 12 years at The New Republic—is no ordinary critic, and How Fiction Works proselytizes on behalf of literature not merely by recommending it, but by actually embodying the virtues it sets out to praise.

Literary criticism is perhaps an inherently pugnacious discipline, and it’s certainly a dialectical one. Nietzsche said that “Every talent must unfold itself in fighting,” and Wood is a case in point.