I was a little nervous to pick up James Wood's How Fiction Works. As I said a few posts ago, I don't love Wood's book reviewing, though I respect his intelligence and erudition. But there is something seductive about How Fiction Works...the physical artifact itself is quite beautiful, with its retro text-only cover printed on matte stock, and the text tightly situated within generous margins. It looks and feels like it might well be a small gem.
It pretty much is. It a smart, entertaining, rather haphazard guide to reading and writing fiction, filled with great quotations from Wood's copious bookshelf, and spangled with surprising personal touches, such as his description of a debate he has with his wife at a concert, or his memories of being read Beatrix Potter as a child.
This isn't what I expected. Wood is famous for disliking things--Don DeLillo for instance, and postmodernism--but here we find him, for the most part, in a rather jovial mode. The book is ninety per cent praise, and the big news here is that Wood is much better at praise (for Flaubert and Chekhov, especially) than he is at criticism. When something raises his ire here, he tends to overstate his case (David Foster Wallace's "hideously ugly" language, Roland Barthes' "murderous hostility" to realism), and he has an unappealing tendency to enclose concepts he finds distasteful, such as Amazon "reader reviews" and creative writing "workshops," in quotation marks. But when he likes things, he is eloquent, charming even: "Novelists should thank Flaubert the way poets thank spring: it all begins with him." Or, during a discussion of metaphor: "In New York City, the garbage collectors call maggots 'disco rice.' That is as good as anything I have been discussing."
In his book reviews, Wood seems always to be constructing himself a literary Alamo from which to fight his losing battle--he is dour in his defense of realism. I wish he would let his guard down more often, as he does here. People's complaint about him seems to be that he is a snob, but what of it? Wood is trying to uphold certain standards, and this is an admirable goal. Personally, I find his taste rather narrow (I happen to find Wallace's language beautiful), but the stuff he knows, he knows the hell out of. In How Fiction Works, his knowing is a force for good. I recommend it.
I hardly know how to begin to address the subject of Walter Kirn's review in this past Sunday's NYTBR, however. Like me, Kirn is bothered by some of Wood's nastier turns of phrase, and, also like me, he could have done without the book's condescending introduction. But after that, Kirn loses his cool. The review is a diffuse, embarrasing rant that seethes with professional jealousy and class paranoia. He openly mocks Wood's erudition, as if it's a bad thing, and tries his best to make Wood look like a pampered pussy. "He flashes the Burberry lining of his jacket," goes a parenthetical aside, "whenever he rises from his armchair to fetch another Harvard Classic."
Kirn, who, according to his Wikipedia page, went to Princeton and married the daughter of a movie star, really ought to get down off his low horse. I don't understand what his problem is--he's probably the most-read book reviewer in the entire world. Yet his review bristles and spits, and collapses into an anti-elitist screed, like a John McCain campaign ad. Read the review if you must, but don't let it stop you from enjoying the Wood book, which is a welcome addition to the canon of popular literary criticism, a genre I feared was dead.