the observer Sun 22 February 2009
In his first full-length book of criticism, James Wood attempts to answer the "essential questions" of fiction: what is a character; what constitutes a telling detail; how does narrative perspective operate? The unassuming title belies a Ruskinian ambition. By dismantling the edifice of fictional prose - from Henry James's What Maisie Knew to Ian McEwan's Atonement - and examining its parts, Wood hopes to tutor the reader in the technique of literary writing and, ultimately, "to reconnect that technique to the world".
Starting a similar endeavour in 1924, IA Richards acknowledged that "one does not expect novel cards when playing so traditional a game". Each of the trails that Wood pursues has been well trampled by past writers and minutely scrutinised by academics. His response is to adopt the stance of the artisan-critic or, in his own words, "to ask a critic's questions and offer a writer's answers".
Such an approach has its advantages and disadvantages. Wood has made his reputation as a creatively destructive reviewer. Where other critics pick up a hatchet, he reaches for a chisel. He buries into the indentations of a text, attending to its grain and consistency, and produces prose that often matches the quality of his subject. In the best sections of the book, Wood delivers on his prefatory promise. The chapters on perspective and language are expressed with the clarity, control and metaphorical range of a first-rate writer.
The difficult subject of free indirect style is particularly well rendered. Wood takes great pleasure (and makes liberal use of exclamation marks) in analysing how the novelist pries into the consciousness of another and lays it open to the world, allowing the reader to "inhabit omniscience and partiality at once". His sheer pleasure in discovering how literary effects are worked brings this old-fashioned primer to life. When he leads the reader deep into a passage and pirouettes on a single word, the whole page seems to vibrate. It is here, in the jittery embers of detail, that the education of the reader's eye is most fully accomplished.