In The Australian, a nominal review of James Wood’s How Fiction Works is really a discussion of Wood’s work more generally. It also shows why I shirked writing a deep review of How Fiction Works, as I I have more than a few quibbles:
If Wood doesn’t “get” the overall trick of an author’s writing he tends to dismiss it. This was most evident in his notorious Guardian review (reworked in The Irresponsible Self) of “hysterical realism”, a term Wood has coined to sum up the work of a whole slew of contemporary novelists that includes Don DeLillo, Zadie Smith, David Foster Wallace, Salman Rushdie and Thomas Pynchon.
Is this an issue of not “getting” the works, or of getting them too well and not liking or caring for what they represent? To me, DeLillo and Pynchon in particular have long been overrated. I remember trying to read them in late school and early college and thinking, “why are these awful writers so highly praised?” At the time I didn’t realize that they were a reaction against earlier literary trends and that they were trying to be stylistically unusual merely for the sake of being stylistically unusual, or for obscure philosophical points without writing actual philosophy. Paul Graham seems to have had a similar experience with actual philosophy. Wood gets this, and probably better than I do, and I’m not the only one who’s noticed the overpraised and under-talented; one thing I very much appreciate about A Reader’s Manifesto is its willingness to engage with writing, rather than politics surrounding writing, or whatever propelled DeLillo to fame.
To return to the review:
While another critic might see the impulse towards jam-packed, baroquely hyperreal novels as a legitimate and thoughtful, albeit varyingly skilful, response to our postmodern world (a mimetic reflection of the different status of information in an age of instant and indiscriminate communication, say, or an attempt to “wake up” a form whose traditional gestures are now the cliched staples of Hollywood cinema) […]
The problem is that these techniques aren’t mimetic: in trying to mimic the supposed techniques that they implicitly criticize, they don’t reflect information, but chaos; they aren’t hyperreal, but fake. And I’m not convinced modern life is so different in terms of “the different status of information in an age of instant and indiscriminate communication.” Information isn’t indiscriminate: I still choose what to read and what to watch most of the time; if I’m exposed to ads, it’s because I choose to be. In some essays, Umberto Eco discusses how he sees ideas and battles from the Middle Ages underlying much of everyday life, and the more I read, the more I tend to trace the lineage of intellectual and personal ideas backwards through time. Although our technological and physical world has changed enormously in the last two hundred years, I’m not sure the purposes to which we put technology and power (conquest, sex, etc.) has much. That isn’t to say literary style hasn’t evolved, as it obviously has, and my preference tends toward novels written after 1900. Ideas have shifted and evolved too. Still, techniques used by modern authors like the hyperrealists just because they can be used doesn’t make them an improvement. Furthermore, not all of Wood’s loves are mine—I just finished Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady and wouldn’t have if I didn’t need to. But I have seldom read a stronger argument for the capital-N Novel than I have in How Fiction Works, and even when I sometimes don’t find Wood persuasive, the power of his argument and depth of his reading always compels me to think more clearly and deeply about my own positions and thoughts.