The Wood Method

James Wood is widely considered the best literary critic at work today. In the LA Times, Gideon Lewis-Kraus illustrates how eager his fans are to read his judgments;

…there is vast anecdotal evidence of subscribers to the New Yorker and the London Review of Books reading Wood’s essays huddled in entryways, coats and keys and umbrellas still in their hands. He has earned a rare and awesome cultural authority.

But this authority does not prevent his fellow critics from taking a few (very respectful) shots at Wood’s new book, How Fiction Works.

Before we get to the criticism, the review that makes you want to read How Fiction Works is in the current issue of Time magazine (7/28), 

Wood’s enthusiasm is glorious. Reading alongside him is like going birding with somebody who has better binoculars than yours and is willing to share…The great pleasure of Wood’s book lies in the examples, not the points they prove, and the lessons lie in watching him read, not think.

Time also points out that two other titles on reading fiction are available this summer;

Thomas C. Foster on How to Read Novels Like a Professor (Harper; 304 pages) and John Mullan on How Novels Work (Oxford; 346 pages), though Wood, as a book critic for the New Yorker, is the heavyweight of the field. 

Salon‘s Louis Bayard makes a great point about the value of reading books as opposed to reading about books;

What, finally, is better for the soul: reading Tolstoy or reading how to read Tolstoy?

Bayard votes for the latter, but also feels;

…there is at least one good reason to read How Fiction Works: Wood writes like an angel, with all the austerity and voluptuousness that implies. More to the point, he is one of the very few critics alive who can engage fiction on its own terms…the intoxication of his essays lies in how they seem to shake off the muck of theory and take fiction head-on

Bayard notes a missing element, however, an appreciation of plot. It’s the element most readers care about and yet, it’s the one most critics disdain;

I can’t help noticing what’s missing — namely, anything to do with story. This is no accident. Wood has always been impatient with what he calls “the essential juvenility of plot,” an attitude that comes through most clearly when he deigns to review genre writers. In How Fiction Works, he uses a not very representative sample from le Carré’s Smiley’s People to damn the whole school of “commercial realism,” its bloodless efficiency, its famished grammar of “intelligent, stable, transparent storytelling.” 

Is it better for the soul to read Wood, or to read about Wood? There’s plenty more opportunity for the latter (with more likely to come):

Libraries show light ordering, with reserves building (the highest is 7 to 1).

How Fiction Works

James Wood

  • Hardcover:  $24.00
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (July 22, 2008)
  • ISBN-10: 0374173400
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374173401

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