More than a whoop

<strong>How Fiction Works</strong>

James Wood <em>Jonathan Cape, 208pp, £16.99</em>

Surveying the state of American letters in 1928, Edmund Wilson complained that he had searched in vain for a "genuine literary criticism" that did more than simply "let out a whoop" for the books it approved of. Where was the criticism that dealt seriously with "ideas and art"? Where was the writer who was "at once first-rate and nothing but a literary critic"? Wilson feared that such a creature did not exist - at least not in America (things were different in France, where writers imbibed the "language of criticism" with their mothers' milk).

Wilson wasn't just complaining when he wrote that: he was also setting himself a challenge, although, given his synoptic cast of mind and the distractions of politics, he could not settle in the end for being "nothing but a literary critic". James Wood has written that Wilson would always treat fictional narrative as if it were a set of propositions rather than a distinctive sort of aesthetic experience. He lacked any real understanding of - or, indeed, deep interest in - just how fiction "works its effects".

Wood, on the other hand, has such understanding in spades. And, as the title of his new book suggests, he thinks that explaining how fiction achieves its "effects" is the proper business of criticism. Take his brief discussion of an episode that occurs towards the end of Nabokov's Pnin (a novel Wilson disliked because he thought the author was forever barging into the story in order to "humiliate" his protagonist).

The eponymous Russian professor is washing the dishes (he has removed his jacket, tie and false teeth in order to do so) and he tries to rescue a nutcracker from the foam. As he is wiping it, the "leggy thing" slips from his grasp. It is the phrase "leggy thing" that catches Wood's eye: "leggy" is gorgeously, characteristically exact, but, he says, "thing" is even better - better "precisely because it is vague"; it is the word that Pnin, at his wits' end, would have used. Nabokov is employing free indirect style to allow us to inhabit Pnin's point of view.

Wood is doing here exactly what Wilson said the genuine critic should do: he is taking a writ erly interest in how things work. But that is not all he is doing; he is also in the middle of making a rather ambitious argument about the development of the modern novel since Flaubert. Wood's genius - and he does this sort of thing time and again throughout the book- is to make those two little words of Nabokov's stand in for two distinct but overlapping strands in the history of the novel. That history, Wood argues, can be told as both the "development of free indirect style" and the "rise of detail".

If "thing" is Pnin's word, "leggy" is Nabokov's. "Leggy" is Nabokov engaging in what a "distinctively post-Flaubertian tradition" holds to be the novelist's principal line of work: noticing details. Wood confesses to feeling ambivalent about this tradition and, in fact, at one point takes Wilson's side in a dispute the latter had with Nabokov over Henry James's way of handling detail. All the strenuous noticing that we find in Flaubert and his successors is, he writes, "sometimes an obstruction to seeing, not an aid".

Roland Barthes once said that in Flaubert the sentence itself becomes a "thing", separate and discrete, a kind of jewel. Wood agrees: we get the sense from Flaubert that the "ideal of writing is a procession of strung details, a necklace of noticings". For Barthes, this "thingly" quality of Flaubert's sentences reminds us that realism (the accumulation of "irrelevant" detail and so on) is simply a system of codes or conventions. The important question for Wood, however, is what follows from this. It is one thing to say that fiction is conventional, the effect of a set of codes, and quite another to conclude that fictive convention can never, therefore, convey anything real. "Realism," Wood insists, "can be an effect and still be true."

This begins to sound much less paradoxical once "truth" is understood, in Aristotelian fashion, to mean not verisimilitude, but plausibility. Indeed, Wood borrows from Aristotle the idea that fictional narrative shows us the sorts of thing that could happen to people. The language of fiction does not refer so much as persuade: the writer's job is to "convince" us that such and such a thing could have happened. And it is the task of the critic to explain to us how he does it. Nobody writing in English today does that better than James Wood; in no other critic is the intelligence so "fully awakened", as Edmund Wilson put it, to the 'implications of what the artist is doing".

Jonathan Derbyshire is the editor of "Time Out - 1,000 Books to Change Your Life"

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Now it gets really dirty