How Fiction Works: King James and the Battle for the Novel

James Wood
Illustration by Kyle T. Webster

There’s a YouTube video of the literary critic James Wood in his kitchen, drumming merrily on the tabletop, a coffee mug, and a plastic bucket of chocolates while his young daughter squeals in delight. He’s in a rumpled sweater, a fringe of hair hovers above his bright, balding head, and his face has the pallor of unbaked bread. It is difficult to reconcile his unassuming physical presence with the fever-pitched wrath that has been directed at his criticism. Indeed, he may be the most vilified literary critic alive.

In The Nation, critic William Deresiewicz calls Wood “condescending” and “imperious” and warns that “if American criticism were to follow his lead, it would end up only in a desert.” Edmond Caldwell’s blog, “Contra James Wood,” is devoted solely to attacking Wood, whom he describes as a “symptom of a disease.” Vivian Gornick, in another broadside from The Nation, describes Wood as an “unhappily lapsed Christian ... [who] worship[s] at the wrong literary altar.” In The New York Times, Walter Kirn’s bilious review of Wood’s book How Fiction Works frequently bypasses the text to attack Wood himself. In Kirn’s imagination, Wood speaks with “genteel condescension” and “flashes the Burberry lining of his jacket whenever he rises from his armchair to fetch another Harvard Classic.” Novelist Colson Whitehead followed up the hatchet job with a snarky piece in Harper’s in which a pompous windbag named James Root gushes inanely over the sentence “He lifted the cup.”

What has Wood done to earn such ire? Perhaps his greatest “sin” is the intensity of his fervor. In his essay collection The Broken Estate, he describes his religious upbringing, and writes, “The child of Evangelicalism, if he does not believe, inherits nonetheless a suspicion of indifference.” Since he became head literary critic at The Guardian at the age of 27 (he subsequently served a 12-year stint at The New Republic, and in 2007 moved to The New Yorker), Wood has never been indifferent. With a craftsman’s precision and a born-again ardor he has carved an indelible line between what he finds sublime and flawed in fiction. In his essays on his favorite authors — Chekhov, Gogol, Melville, Bellow, Naipaul, Sebald — Wood revels simultaneously in the literary technique and the metaphysical force of the prose; indeed, for Wood the two are inseparable. In his close readings — for example, his examination of dialogue in Richard Price’s Lush Life — there is a tangible delight. When he finds a novel lacking, he is rigorous in charting its stylistic and philosophical failings. Some of the most acclaimed contemporary authors have felt the sting of Wood’s disquiet, and yet he never stoops to the petty indignation of a critic like B.R. Myers (A Reader’s Manifesto: An Attack on the Growing Pretentiousness in American Literary Prose), the bazooka tactics of the novelist and critic Dale Peck, or the heedless verdicts of The New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani. Wood’s naysayers categorize his aesthetics as narrow and polemical (fancy talk for “not the same as mine”), yet his criticism clearly rises from a deep passion, an intellect fueled by soulfulness, curiosity and hope. He is so easy to attack precisely because he offers so much to consider.

In 2000 Wood wrote his most divisive essay, the New Republic article “Human, All Too Inhuman,” which coined the term hysterical realism to describe the overflowing excess of novels like Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, and Don DeLillo’s Underworld. Wood saw this strain of novel as “perpetual motion machines ... all shiny externality, all caricature ... [novels that] continually flourish their glamorous congestion.” The essay can be seen as a sea change moment in the history of contemporary fiction. A movement that had maintained a vice-lock claim on “radical” status since at least John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor (1960) and Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 (1965)had finally been exposed for its conventionality.

Most shocking of all, writers listened. Smith, in her 2001 aesthetic mea culpa “This Is How It Feels to Me” wrote: “Hysterical realism ... is a painfully accurate term for the sort of overblown, manic prose to be found in novels like my own ... the wrong words, the wrong time, the wrong medium. Obsessed with our knowledge, when the last thing people want is the encyclopaedic.... But still I’m going to write. If only because Wood is right; there are still books that make me hopeful, because they function as human products in the greatest sense.”

And this is Wood’s second “sin”: his influence. He is the rare critic — that alleged parasite — whose zeal and intelligence have an impact. In The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen famously sought to humanize postmodernism. Wallace — to judge by the recent New Yorker profile — struggled mightily until the end to unearth the deeper human elements in the cultural philosophy of his prose. DeLillo’s paranoid grandstanding has grown simultaneously confused and obvious. To whatever extent contemporary fiction has lost its infatuation with anorexic self-consciousness, characters as theoretical puppets, and cataloguing cultural phenomena, Wood, in a small way, can be thanked. Some will rise to his challenge, eager to mint new literary styles that speak to the human experience. Others — the old guard avant-garde — merely reach for their pitchforks and torches.


Over a series of e-mails, I talked with Wood about How Fiction Works, his criticism, and the criticism of his criticism.

L.A. WEEKLY: Are there any changes to the paperback edition of How Fiction Works that we should know about? 

JAMES WOOD: In the final paragraph, where I am talking about how the true writer must always be acting as if life itself were always on the verge of becoming conventional, I have added a sentence from Chekhov, which is almost talismanic for me. “Ibsen is no playwright,” Chekhov was heard to complain. “In life, it simply isn’t like that.” It’s still a radical statement, 100 years later, because it implies that form is always trying to catch up with the formlessness of life. And it doesn’t matter what form you have in mind (Chekhov clearly meant that the well-made Ibsen play, with its slightly didactic, big theme, made life too tidy). The writer’s job is to keep breaking the forms, and a realist writer may do this as profoundly as an antirealist writer (Naipaul might be an example of the former, Saramago the latter).

How Fiction Works uses a much quieter and populist approach than your previous books of criticism. What led to that?

It came out of teaching. I have always been intensely focused on style, of course, and technique (I guess I think like a failed novelist). Teaching enabled me to do more close reading than I can easily do in print, and also demonstrated that most students of writing lack much historical sense of how technique has developed. The result is a peculiar hybrid, I suppose: a book that has elements of the craft manual, elements of a history of the novel, and elements of an essay on “aspects of the novel” — the book is a circling around some things that interest me, and which, I hope, are of interest to writers and readers.

It seems very humble, helpful, and earnest in its endeavors. Though that didn’t stop Walter Kirn from painting you as the world’s greatest snob in The Times.

I was bemused by the Walter Kirn attack — that’s diplomatese for “I wanted him dead and bound in the trunk of a Lincoln Town Car.” It was the purest American anti-intellectualism: Fiction, he claimed, is about noise on the streets, not words on the page, because words on the page mean ... the library. And that is where I spend all my time, apparently. His review traded in the coarsest binarisms: On one side, according to Kirn, there are [Henry] James and Flaubert, tortured and isolated souls, who spent their lives rubbing nouns and adjectives together in onanistic bliss, and on the other side, there is ... none other than David Foster Wallace! Does Kirn think Wallace did not spend Jamesian amounts of time and energy rubbing together exquisite nouns and adjectives? Of course, he did. Writers who care about language care about such things as nouns and adjectival phrases. They aren’t cowboys — at least, not on the page.

And then there were all the silly things he said about my having a Burberry coat. Alas, he revealed much more about his own social anxieties than he did about my criticism.

What is your emotional response to these reviews?

The stupid, negative ones make one angry, and the clever, negative ones make one sad. The nice ones are all unreadable, in a way — because one cannot read nice words about oneself.

Colson Whitehead goes for an even lower blow with his gross caricature in Harper’s. What do you think is the wellspring of this malice? 

I can’t fathom these twisted minds.... No, seriously, some of it has to do with a fierce fight that is going on in American fiction about the status of realism. The problem I have with these attacks is that I am seen as simply a defender of realism. Vivian Gornick, in The Nation, accused me of being a “champion of the painfully inadequate realist novel.” Okay, then let her name a single conventional contemporary realist novel I have “championed” in the last five years. On the contrary, I dislike conventional realism — I have violently attacked John Irving, Robert Stone and Tom Wolfe for precisely this reason. I love the way Bellow gets round this, the way he evades realism; you can never find in Bellow the kind of realist sentence that goes: “He put down his glass and left the room.” (The kind of sentence that, according to Colson Whitehead, I am supposed to fawn over.) My problem with hysterical realism is precisely that such novels are too realistic! All that density of information, and social detail — DeLillo can sometimes seen like Dreiser postmodernized.


It seems strange that people insist that you want all novels to imitate Flaubert’s fiction forever, when in your essay “Half Against Flaubert” you speak with great ambivalence about his “tyranny of the detail.”

You are quite right.... I rather dislike Flaubertian realism — its aestheticism, its frozenness, the way it seems to close off life, as much as it discloses life. The death of Emma Bovary is unaffecting to me, because I feel the pressure of Flaubert’s careful choreography: On the one side of the bed, the priest (the church) and on the other, the doctor (medicine), united in their failure, and each condemned by Flaubert. But I do think his way of constructing a typical paragraph represents a watershed in the history of narration, so I tried to give attention to that.

What were you like as a child?

My teenage years were consumed by writing and reading — I wrote the usual bad poetry — and by playing and listening to music (I play the piano, the trumpet and the drums). Shakespeare, Auden and Orwell all made a big impact when I was a teenager. I was an uncomplicated child, by all accounts — noisy, happy, exhibitionist. I still have all three of those ... virtues.

How did you become a critic?

I was in love with the idea of earning a living by the pen — I still am, and it is why I am as happy to be called a literary journalist as a literary critic. All I knew was that I wanted to write prose outside the university, connected to as many ordinary readers as I could find.

Before labeling your criticism as a dead end for intellectual thought, William Deresiewicz in The Nation praises your breadth of knowledge: “He has not only read all the novels; he has read all the lives, all the letters and all the manifestoes, and he quotes them, with an exquisite ear for accent and echo, as if he’d read them all yesterday.”

I never seem very well-read to myself — I only notice the gaps, the thin bits, the bald patches (yes, the analogy with my hair is apt ...) Only nowadays would I be praised for my breadth: At the time when Woolf was writing, for instance, in the 1920s and 1930s, it was assumed that a novelist would have, as part of her equipment, a thorough knowledge of the history of her form, in several languages. In this respect, Woolf wasn’t unusual. But to answer your question more directly: I jolly well should have read quite a bit, because that is all I do. I’m employed to be well-read! To borrow from Beckett, I sit on my arse all day, farting and thinking about Dante. Children fill the rest of the time.

As a critic, is there sense of pleasure in reading novels that you do not enjoy?

Oh, absolutely, because the pleasure is in working out where and how they seem — to me, of course — to go wrong. My energy as a critic is (I am unashamed to admit it) frustrated creativity. For as long as I can remember, I have read novels with the thought: “What can this novel teach me about writing a good novel?” (Of course, that is not the only interest, but it is, for me, the driving force.) Within that vision, a novel that fails to work is of course as interesting as a novel that absolutely succeeds, because it is all grist to the mill. And anyway, as Randall Jarrell said, all novels are just pieces of prose with something wrong with them. All novels fail, really; some just fail a bit less drastically than others.

You’re famous (infamous?) for assailing some of the most acclaimed contemporary authors. When you set about writing an essay like, for example, “Toni Morrison’s False Magic,” what does it feel like? What are you hoping for?

I’d like to say that I anticipate an “uproar” when I review Toni Morrison or Thomas Pynchon, but the reality is a good deal quieter — alas. These reviews don’t feel especially audacious to me. I used to think that one was writing a review addressed to the author of the book, and that negative reviews were always involved in some kind of agonistic struggle to convince him of the error of his ways. But that was wrong. Reviews are written over the head of the author, so to speak, and written for the reader. In some slightly inhuman way, one must edit out the human, suffering author, and deal with the text as an impersonal object. That said, I find such inhumanity harder to achieve as I get older, and less defensible. No doubt this is a reaction to being reviewed myself.


Are you friends with many novelists and critics? Does that ever get in the way of your work?

I have quite a number of friends who are writers and critics, and some of them (like Zadie Smith) are people I have been quite hard on. Likewise, I am friendly with people who have written less than positively about me. I reviewed Ian McEwan’s novel Enduring Love very harshly for The Guardian (it is a pretty shallow thriller), then met him at a literary conference, and liked him immensely — as everyone does, I gather. So it goes: All that is part of the usual friction of criticism, surely.

How about your enemies? Do you run into them now and again?

My true enemies skulk in a deep Dostoevskian Underground called the Internet, and never see the light of day — that is their punishment for hating me so much; it matches the sin, as in Dante.

Deresiewicz’s essay attacks you for what you don’t do. He desperately wants literary criticism to embrace culture, politics, and the world at large in the spirit of the New York critics. And he seems to suggest that your existence will somehow hinder that ...

Of course, there were plenty of things I didn’t agree with in that Nation review. What seemed most partial was the elevation of the New York critics of the 1950s, which means the elevation of a certain conjunction of literature and politics. I’m not at all hostile to that kind of criticism — I have read a lot of Trilling and Wilson and Kazin and Howe. I am very fond of Orwell, and have written a long essay about him. But you won’t find much in the way of stylistic analysis in Trilling or Kazin; and Wilson is notably weak when he writes about Chekhov or Nabokov. I am more of a formalist than these writers, and there is another tradition, which would take in Shklovksy, and Empson, and Jarrell, and Nabokov’s lectures, and Barthes, in which the text is closely read as a verbal artifact, above all. These are the critics that thrill me. When I read Kazin I am always saying to myself: “Okay, now get to the text, tell us something about the language, about the formation of the words. Do some literary analysis.” But he doesn’t.

But if I am a formalist, I am one who is always fighting his own tendency to formalism: The moralist in me is always recoiling from my own aestheticism, and judging it. The Kierkegaardian struggle of the aesthetic and the ethical. Such contradictions are surely what make critics interesting — think of Coleridge, a great hero of mine.

Ecumenicism seems important: among contemporary critics, I like a political critic like George Scialabba and a wonderful aesthetic critic like the poet Michael Hofmann ... and I could go on, because I think we are in a golden age for criticism at the moment.

You are accused at times of being too narrow in aesthetics, too frequently returning to the same names — Bellow, Chekhov, etc. Who are the exceptions to your perceived orthodoxy.

One of the important ways in which one has to struggle against one’s congealment as a critic, is precisely to search for exceptions. In my case, it seems very important to remind myself that the kind of largesse I extend to, say, a Gogol or Dickens, might also be extended to a Zadie Smith or a Jonathan Franzen. In other words, one mustn’t approve of dead, distinguished authors just because they are dead and distinguished. If one can like surrealism and ludic games in Gogol, then one should be able to appreciate the same in a good contemporary writer. It’s very easy for a historically minded critic like me to get overcanonical; and then one is simply wandering in a cemetery of Arnoldian touchstones.

You close How Fiction Works by reminding us that “the writer has to act as if the available novelistic methods are continually about to turn into mere convention.” Which living authors do you feel are most appropriately and artfully embracing this challenge? 

I am very interested and inspired by the works of, among others, Lydia Davis, Peter Handke, David Mitchell, recent work by Cormac McCarthy and [Kazuo] Ishiguro, and Michel Houellebecq.... As I said at the beginning, an author is always trying to break the forms. Look at how subtly daring V.S. Naipaul has been, for instance! He has created hybrid forms of autobiography and history and fiction (In a Free State, The Enigma of Arrival), has tried to blur the division between journalism and novel-writing. He always wants the novel form to do more, to take in more of the world. To my mind, his work is more open to the radicalism of the lived world than, say, David Foster Wallace’s, even though to most people Wallace looks like the radical, and Naipaul looks like an old racist conservative.


Will you return to fiction writing?

I hope to get to work on a second novel this summer — as I like to say, the reason for the existence of the second novel is simply so as to improve on the first.

HOW FICTION WORKS | By JAMES WOOD | Picador | 288 pages | $14 softcover (July)


Further reading from the Weekly Literary Supplement:

"Geoff in London, Interview in Absentia," by Tom Christie

"Henry Bay’s America: An Excerpt From The Enthusiast," by Charlie Haas

"Wet Metal: An Excerpt From Blame," by Michelle Huneven

"The Calm: An Excerpt From Silver Lake," by Peter Gadol

"Old World Meets New Age in Thriller Nowhere-Land," by Judith Freeman

"Publishing Your Novel Online," by Alan Rifkin


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