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Critic deconstructs art of writing fiction

'How Fiction Works'
By James Wood
Published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux,
265 pages, $24

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In "How Fiction Works," James Wood "asks a critic's questions and gives a writer's answers" about serious fiction.

He considers his book a sustained argument with his favorite 20th century critics, Roland Barthes and Viktor Shklovsy, but also takes on others, such as William Gass, professor emeritus of Washington University.

Wood, a book critic at the New Yorker and a professor of the practice of literary criticism at Harvard University, is a practical rather than theoretical critic who asks age-old questions: What makes a successful metaphor or a compelling character? How do brilliant use of detail and point of view work together to move us? How do narration, language and dialogue contribute to truth and realism in the novel?

Wood succeeds, for the most part, in offering answers, and his work should supplant E.M. Forster's dated "Aspects of the Novel" as the canonical text on criticism.

In chapters subdivided into short numbered paragraphs, he writes with a direct eloquence. In these chapters, unlike in his previous two collections of polemic essays, his overall tone is one of praise.

He is unafraid to exclaim, "What a piece of writing this is!" about a passage from Henry James. In a look at Flaubert, Wood says, "How superb and magnificently isolate these details are — the women yawning, the unopened newspapers, the washing quivering in the warm air."

He extols, "How fine that is," about the phrase "weedy little mortality patch" from Marilynne Robinson's "Gilead" and, "How lovely the simplicity" on the ending of Chekhov's "Ward 6."

On the other hand, Wood labels Gass — whose books have three times won criticism awards from the National Book Critics Circle — an opponent of fictive convention. He finds Gass' criticism of a passage from Henry James' "The Awkward Age" "deeply and incorrigibly wrong." When Gass writes, "There are no descriptions in fiction, there are only constructions," Wood retorts: "To deny character with such extremity is to deny the novel."

His critical bite isn't limited to other critics. He admonishes novelists when their authorial voice writes over characters as John Updike's rich and stylish voice does in "Terrorist."

Suddenly, Updike's 18-year-old protagonist's thoughts make the uneasy transition to theology: "He will not grow any taller, he thinks. … What infinite source of energy would maintain opulent Eden," Wood correctly criticizes the sentence as its syntax and lyricism are Updike's, not Ahmad's.

Among Wood's favorite writers are Flaubert, who established the modern realistic narrative, and Saul Bellow, whose attention to detail he admires, though he confesses ambivalence about detail in general. Wood relishes it, consumes it, but chokes on too much of it. He enjoys a detail with a certain "thisness," one that seems really true, that "kills abstraction with a puff of palpability."

There is nothing harder than creating a fictional character, Wood says, disagreeing with Forster's idea of "flat" and "round" characters. "Flatness," Wood says, "is more interesting than he (Forster) makes it out to be … and roundness more complicated."

On occasion, Wood finds many so-called flat characters more palpable and alive than their "round" counterparts. "We can tell a great deal from a character by how he talks … how he bumps against the world."

Same goes for a critic: We see Wood as a maturing critic whose criticism has evolved into something more "rounded" — as likely to praise as rebuke — and more palpable.

Joseph Peschel is a writer in South Dakota.

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