The Care and Feeding of Fiction

James Wood’s critical manifesto is firm, yet flexible.

The Englishman James Wood, recently named The New Yorker’s chief book reviewer, by now comes to us wreathed in a Homeric epithet. The epithet varies from venue to venue but always yokes together two presumably opposed attributes: polished manners and deadly ferocity. Wood is a “courtly eviscerator,” says n+1. He is an “elegant assassin,” says the Boston Globe.

The charge is not false, exactly—Wood has written many harsh things about many contemporary novels—but in How Fiction Works he turns it upside down, revealing decorum and moral intensity to be the roots of a beautifully leafed-out aesthetic philosophy. Wood, you might say, has a deep ethical commitment to literary tact. He believes that there is a right way and a wrong way for novelists to comport themselves. Under the guise of a reader’s handbook, an introduction to the primary elements of fictional narrative (voice, detail, character, dialogue), Wood has written a manifesto—one with the singular feel of an etiquette manual, though none of its fussiness.

Here are some of Wood’s do’s and don’ts. Writers should treat their fictions with the deference due something real; or, if they don’t, they should show that they understand the consequences of not doing so. They should grant characters their measure of “metaphysical presence,” not move them around like pawns in “metafictional games.” Authors should be “gravely affirmative” before they give themselves license to be “gravely skeptical.” They should “inhabit” their stories, rather than play with them. Details should be sprinkled with a light but deliberate touch (tact, of course, comes from the Latin for touch) and imbued with the weight of what the medieval theologian Duns Scotus called “thisness”: “By thisness,” Wood writes, “I mean any detail that draws abstraction toward itself and seems to kill that abstraction with a puff of palpability.”

Don’t mistake this advice for a codification of “good form,” at least not in the prep-school sense of the word. Wood grounds his critical dicta in an unusually, well, tactile response to reality, the kind he thinks should flourish in works of art. It follows that he has a taste for realism, the stuff of Tolstoy and Flaubert and George Eliot and Saul Bellow, that old-time magisterial magic routinely dismissed as tired convention and bourgeois construct. “The realistic novel” is “politically and philosophically dubious,” not to mention “dull” and in need of “a kick in the ass,” Wood quotes novelist Rick Moody as saying. Wood is here to defend “the realistic novel”—not against Moody, a writer too easily unstuffed to make a good straw man, but against the more serious thinkers Moody channels: the Formalists and Structuralists and Poststructuralists for whom the “real,” in literature, can be reduced to linguistic artifice and for whom reading astutely entails seeing through Realism’s codes.

How Fiction Works is also, although more tacitly, a defense of Wood’s most controversial position as a critic. Eight years ago, in an essay in the New Republic, Wood dismayed several of the best-known authors in the English-speaking world—including Don Delillo, Salman Rushdie, Tom Wolfe, Jonathan Franzen, and Zadie Smith, the author under review—by kneading their novels together into a single dispiriting lump he titled “hysterical realism.” By that he meant: big, antic, obsessively detailed, thickly plotted, and, above all, ambitious. Indeed, he said, writing an overblown novel had become a requisite rite of literary ambition. Wood’s specific complaint about “hysterical realism” was that it had reach but lacked touch; it failed to bring its world to life. Its characters have, he wrote in his essay, “a showy liveliness, a theatricality,” but the liveliness “hangs off them like jewelry.”

Once you’ve read How Fiction Works, you’ll see how precisely Wood’s objection turns on that word, liveliness. The relationship of literature to life is his main concern. Is great fiction mimetic, that is, does it imitate life? Or does it have a reality all its own, some other, parallel, nonintersecting life, as the great critic Roland Barthes maintained? ” ‘What takes place’  in the narrative is, from the referential (reality) point of view, literally nothing,” Barthes wrote in a 1966 essay; ” ‘what happens’ is language alone, the adventure of language, the unceasing celebration of its fiction.’ ” Do fictional beings have ontological existence, and if so, how much? Should they be lifelike, alive, neither, or both? As you’ve already guessed, Wood believes fiction partakes of the real and has a life of its own, and he coins a term, lifeness, to denote the quality of having those qualities. By lifeness, he means, he says, “life brought to life by the highest artistry.”

“The highest artistry” may seem like an absurdly grand hook for Wood to hang his critical principles on, but he earns the phrase with a book that sets out to explain clearly what he means by it. His list of approved techniques is both obvious and idiosyncratic, and each item on it has in common with the others a requirement of unsparing attentiveness to the “thisness” of a fictional world. There is, for instance, the telling visual detail, which Wood agrees has grown dull through mindless overuse. At its best, however—not least in the work of the founding hyperrealist, Flaubert—the realistic detail embodies an original and instructive act of noticing, an “exact palpability,” such as Marlow’s shoes full of a speared man’s blood in Heart ofDarkness or a baby’s arms being so fat they seem tied up with string, in Anna Karenina.

Wood reserves his passion, though, and the greater part of his book, for another technique, a variety of third-person narration called “free indirect style,” in which a novelist shifts subtly into a character’s voice without benefit of he saids or she thoughts. Free indirect style allows an author to establish a sympathetic intimacy with a character, and, though Wood never comes out and says this, you sense that he thinks it is this motherly bond that imbues fiction with “lifeness”; here is the embryonic fluid in which the narrative “seems to float away from the novelist and take on the properties of the character.” In What Maisie Knew, for instance, Henry James tenderly cedes the telling of the tale to the young, only partly comprehending Maisie, a generosity that gives that bitter story of youth destroyed by adult selfishness a sweetness that saves it from being unbearable.

More often than not, of course, “free indirect style” also opens up an ironic distance between author and character—What MaisieKnew, in which author and reader understand the parents’ wickedness a great deal better than Maisie does, is the classic example of this sort of irony—and that tension, too, can jolt a story to life. Wood cites wonderfully funny examples of authorial irony from the works of Jane Austen and James Joyce, among others, but my favorite example comes from a Chekhov story, “Rothschild’s Fiddle,” that begins: “The town was small, worse than a village, and in it lived almost none but old people, who died so rarely it was even annoying.” Chekhov plunges us without warning into the mind of a thoroughly distasteful coffin-maker, for whom, as Wood puts it, “longevity is an economic nuisance.”

Other aspects of the novel warrant shorter meditations, but these are no less brilliant than the others. Wood considers characters and concludes that they need not be “round,” as E.M. Forster famously maintained, or even well-fleshed-out. Wood has no aversion to Dickensian caricatures reduced to brief tag lines. What he does request is that characters be profoundly seen and ineffably alive. Dialogue, says Wood, should hold back as much as, if not more than, it says. A good metaphor does not just conform to a character’s worldview; it “hovers around the character, and seems to emanate from that character’s world.”

Wood fishes for these rhetorical devices in the choppy waters of actual novels, often emerging with several at once. Take his reading of the phrase “leggy thing,” which occurs in Nabokov’s novel Pnin. Those are the narrator’s words for a nutcracker that slips and seems about to shatter a precious bowl in a sink full of soapy water and is grabbed for by Pnin, that awkward, unhappy Russian professor. With leggy, Wood writes, “we can instantly see the long legs of the wayward nutcracker, as if it were falling off the roof and walking away. But ‘thing’ is even better, precisely because it is vague: Pnin is lunging at the implement. … Now if the brilliant ‘leggy’ is Nabokov’s word, then the hapless ‘thing’ is Pnin’s word, and Nabokov is here using a kind of free indirect style, probably without even thinking about  it.” So “leggy thing” yields detail, metaphor, and “free indirect style.” It also opens a window onto two of the most pronounced characteristics of Nabokov’s style, visual acuity and narrative insouciance—or, at least, Wood’s reading of it does, which is the most you can ask of good reading.

I hope this isn’t taken the wrong way, but by the end of How Fiction Works, I felt as though I had just read a very wise guide to parenting. I had been reminded of the important things in life, or at least the important things when dealing with one’s own creations: Respect them. Give them room to blossom. Don’t natter on; that sounds like nagging. “Tutor” or “teach” (Wood’s verbs); don’t “lecture.” Be persuasive rather than dictatorial. One of the nicer virtues of lifeness is that it lifts realism above the tyranny of verisimilitude. So let Gregor Samsa * wake up as an Ungeziefer (properly translated, as has recently been pointed out, as some sort of vermin, not as a cockroach). Let Knut Hamsen’s hero in Hunger eat his own fingers. Wood quotes Aristotle, who said that a convincing impossibility is preferable to an unconvincing possibility: “[I]t is the artist’s task to convince us that this could have happened.” Wood also cites Henry James in the epigraph of the book: “There is only one recipe—to care a great deal for the cookery.” Realism is true when it is persuasive, and it is persuasive when its author cares a great deal for the occupants of a fictional world: These are Wood’s decorous precepts, and about them he is fiercely persuasive.

Correction, July 22, 2008: The original version incorrectly identified Kafka’s character as K. rather than Gregor Samsa.( Return to the corrected sentence.)