I keep citing James Wood’s How Fiction Works without writing about it directly because the book feels so whole that it lacks the typical cracks that offer handholds. It asks the right questions and, inevitably, can only offer partial answers, but those answers are far more illuminating than almost anyone else’s, and its contents are encapsulated by the epigraph: ‘There is only one recipe – to care a great deal for the cookery.’ Henry James said, and James Wood lives it.
For reasons opaque to me this book hasn’t come out in the United States yet and won’t in July, yet it seemed essential enough to buy it from the U.K., and now I perceive that decision as a wise one. How Fiction Works joins good company stretching back at least to E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, which is addressed, and it goes beyond that—the book is part how-to, part criticism, part literary theory, and part history, and all the whole is greater than their sum, offering much to almost every reader. If that weren’t enough, it also comes with potential reading list—for example, the affection Wood, along with Jane Smiley and others, shows toward Henry Green makes me realize I should read him. Some writers—like Dawn Powell and William Maxwell—seem destined to be remembered only by other writers, their secrets moving through the years with only thin strands connecting them from person to person, forgotten by teachers, academics, and other keepers of the past. I wish I had more than two short paragraphs to say, but this is the rare book that I can only recommend you read, and then perhaps you will understand why. The reviews I’ve seen so far—representative samples are here and here, though this is better—so miss their target, or at least so fail to really engage it, that I hesitate to add to clamor, rather than music. The critic whose writing is consistently music instead of bombast is too rare, and consequently, I encourage you to listen.