Expert Counsel

How Fiction Works
James Wood
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $22, 288 pp.

In his brief introduction to this valuable and entertaining primer, James Wood proposes to explore the following central questions about the art of fiction: “Is realism real? How do we define a successful metaphor? What is a character? When do we recognize a brilliant use of detail in fiction? What is point of view and how does it work? What is imaginative sympathy? Why does fiction move us?” If the book has a larger argument, he continues, “it is that fiction is both artifice and verisimilitude, and that there is nothing difficult in holding together the two positions.” Probably no one would dissent from the claim that fiction is artifice; but its verisimilitude is more problematic, and Wood has always been preoccupied with that problem. His first book of essays, The Broken Estate, has as its opening sentence, “The real is the atlas of fiction, over which all novelists search,” and to further extend that search is always Wood’s aim. As a practicing novelist himself—The Book Against God is a canny and engaging performance—he knows that memorable performance in criticism, as in fiction, is dependent on an imaginative use of language, on a style. “Artifice” is required not only in the novelist; criticism should also be as creative as the critic can make it.

One of the most attractive things about Wood’s new book is its physical format and uncluttered mode of presentation, beginning with the no-nonsense...

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About the Author

William H. Pritchard is the Henry Clay Folger Professor of English at Amherst College. He is the author of Shelf Life: Literary Essays and Reviews (University of Massachusetts Press) among others.