How Fiction Works is simultaneously a gloss on the history of what James Wood calls “modern realist narration” and an encapsulation of much of Wood’s criticism to date. That is to say, in charting realism’s development, Wood revisits many subjects from his two previous books of essays, The Broken Estate and The Irresponsible Self.
Much of what I admire in Wood’s past criticism is on display again here. Yet the way in which Wood repurposes older material occasionally rankles. Consider, for example, the excellent opening of his introduction to Saul Bellow’s Collected Stories:
Every writer is eventually called a “beautiful writer,” just as all flowers are eventually called pretty. Any prose above the most ordinary is applauded; and “stylists” are crowned every day, of steadily littler kingdoms. Amidst this busy relativity, it is easy to take for granted the immense stylistic powers of Saul Bellow . . .
Here is the same metaphor, retooled for How Fiction Works:
We must proceed on the assumption that almost all prose popularly acclaimed as beautiful . . . is nothing of the sort, that almost every novelist will at some point be baselessly acclaimed for writing “beautifully” as almost all flowers are at some point acclaimed for smelling nice.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the same flowers appearing in both books (they appear also in Wood’s essay on Bellow in The Irresponsible Self). But part of what I admire about the first passage is its seamless movement from general to specific—the metaphor carves a niche for the analysis that follows. Such movements are common in Wood’s essays, but rarer in How Fiction Works: the second passage starts general and stays that way, and so the lovely functionality of those flowers is lost.
The ambitious scope of How Fiction Works necessitates a degree of generality, but Wood’s prose is filled with echoes of his essays, inviting comparisons that, to my mind, are not always in the new book’s favor. But what do others think? Has familiarity with Wood’s previous criticism—or a lack thereof—affected your experience with this book?