The audacious title of James Wood's How Fiction Works begs for objections, or it would if the literary critic and novelist weren't so persistently, humbly persuasive in explaining his take on how words pull us into a world of their own. In a book aimed at readers and writers alike that draws on everything from Jane Austen to Philip Roth, Wood singles out the elements that divide successful fiction from failures.
The failures are notable mostly in their absence. Wood is generous in his appreciation of a broad assortment of fiction, in part because he seeks to bring it all under a wide-spanning critical umbrella. Opening the book with a discussion of voice, Wood refreshes readers' memories about first, second, and third-person narration and the various subcategories. Then he launches into the argument that most forms of narration drift toward what he calls "free, indirect style," in which the narrator more or less hovers around the consciousness of the story's focal characters. When James Joyce opens "The Dead" with the line, "Lily, the caretaker's daughter, was literally run off her feet," he lets the character dictate the exact right wrong word to describe Lily's sense of being overwhelmed.
And speaking of le mot juste, Wood returns repeatedly to the primary importance of Gustave Flaubert as a writer whose gift for psychological immersion and painterly detail makes his influence difficult to overestimate. But Wood isn't so admiring as to be overwhelmed, writing of the "strange burden of 'chosenness' we feel around Flaubert's details." By Wood's estimation, the writer who disappears into the writing accomplishes the most. Better still: the writer who captures a piece of the world on the page. Defining realism broadly, Wood has little patience for those ready to write it off as a style best kept in the past.
He isn't afraid to take aim at other examples of what he regards as faulty thinking, either. He singles out E.M. Forster's notion of flat and round characters as past its expiration date, and has no use for the notion that characters must be likeable and identifiable for fiction to work. Ideally, writing is a place to transcend the limits of self in the search for truth, a heady notion beautifully conveyed in a book written by a true believer.