In case you haven’t already done so, head over to Urban Tree and read Stephen Crowe’s superbly weighted review of James Wood’s How Fiction Works. Here’s an excerpt:
"Wood is an analytical thinker at heart, and therefore a theorist by inclination. As the title indicates, he intends his book not merely to be a compilation of observations about fiction, but as an enquiry into fiction’s fundamental nature. ‘If the book has a larger argument,’ he writes in the introduction, ‘it is that fiction is both artifice and verisimilitude, and that there is nothing difficult in holding together these two possibilities.’ To say that fiction is artifice will cause no controversy, and at its best Wood’s book serves as an ingenious examination of some of the methods by which such artifice is created; but Wood’s latter claim, that fiction is rooted in verisimilitude, is considerably more divisive, and it is an argument to which Wood returns again and again throughout the book, to worry at its edges.
The place of realism in fiction has always been an important part of Wood’s criticism. In a review of Toni Morrison’s Paradise, published in 1997, Wood claimed that, ‘since fiction is itself a kind of magic, the novel should not be magical.’ In other words, because to read a novel is an act of belief, a novel must not include anything which is unbelievable. The assurance of this remarkable assertion masks its incoherence: how could anyone today enjoy Homer or Shakespeare in any but the most abstract of terms? How could Wood himself explain the aesthetic pleasure he evidently derives from the Bible? Certainly there is no space in an aesthetic like this for Kafka or Beckett, both of whose work Wood endorses in How Fiction Works.
In the intervening decade, Wood’s defense of realism has grown considerable nuance, and Wood slowly develops it as he works his way through each chapter. He takes on a number of ‘anti-realists’ in the course of the book, culminating in the final chapter, entitled ‘Truth, Convention, Realism’, in which he mounts a direct assault on the theory of Roland Barthes. The crux of the debate lies in the ability of literary realism to achieve its purpose. For Barthes and his followers, fiction can never succeed in representing reality, and a realist who makes the attempt will merely produce a subjective illusion that naively reinforces bourgeois values. Rather than signifying reality, realism, for Barthes, signifies the intention to resemble reality, and results in nothing but a naïve illusion.
Wood’s response to this argument is subtle. While it is clear from Wood’s earlier essays that he had a fairly orthodox understanding of the word ‘realism’, in recent years he has developed a decidedly idiosyncratic definition, one which permits him to assimilate a greater variety of fiction into the category of ‘realism’ than seems intuitively plausible. Even the most unrealistic works of fiction, Wood claims, owe a debt to realism, because the emotional ‘truth’ of any story—what Wood refers to as ‘lifeness’—results from its likeness, literal or metaphorical, to real life."