James Wood’s How Fiction Works makes a passionate case for the novel, arguing that it puts other forms of creative writing firmly in the shade, says Peter Conrad
- The Observer, Sunday 17 February 2008
James Wood, once a Guardian book reviewer, is now professor of the practice of literary criticism at Harvard. Despite its clunkily repeated preposition, the latter job description spells out a defiant faith in practice as opposed to theory. The theorists who used to be so academically modish had little knowledge of literature and even less love for it. The aim of their endeavours was to dispense with what they criticised, since literature was at best the residue of a false consciousness, a tissue of oppressive untruths overdue for demolition.
Wood, proud to be a practitioner, rebukes such arrogant scepticism. Even Barthes, whom he admires, is accused of possessing a ‘sensitive, murderous’ contempt for fictional realism and the reality it upholds. ‘Alienated from creative instinct’, such critics vilify a bright, illuminating energy they cannot share. Wood is not of their number. By examining the minutiae of character, narrative and style in a range of fictional works that starts with the Bible and ends with Coetzee and Pynchon, he fondly and delicately pieces back together what the deconstructors put asunder. (…)