James Wood Has a Superficial Understanding of Fiction

James Wood is perhaps the most celebrated literary critic around, and his offer of employment at the New Yorker a few years ago was practically an inevitability. Long time readers of this blog will know I have mixed feelings about the man, on the one hand praising his analysis and critical acumen, and on the other despairing his hopelessly conservative tastes and high modernist sensibility. However, I never quite grasped the true depths of what is deeply wrong in his critical understanding until I read his most recent book, How Fiction Works.

Understand: this is a book that spends three chapters talking about the importance of detail (before Wood concludes that he is "ambivalent" about details in fiction), but has not one single chapter about plot. Indeed, plot is twice dismissed as juvenile, and Wood turns to the example of Flaubert again and again, the man who, Wood says, wanted to write a book about "nothing", that got by on style alone.