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"How Fiction Works"

America's top literary critic shares the secrets of the books he loves.

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In 1858, John Ruskin wrote his “Aspects of Drawing,” a 244-page primer on modern form. Rare among Victorian texts, “Aspects” eschewed grandiose analysis. Instead it stripped art to a series of straight lines, from object (reality) to art (reality translated and then illuminated) – from “technique to the world.”

This last clause belongs to James Wood, and he uses it to launch his own formal inquiry, How Fiction Works. Ruskin, Wood argues, had it right: he cast “a critic’s eye over the business of creation.” His authority came not “from his own technique as a draftsman ... but from what his eye has seen and how well, and his ability to transmit that vision into prose.”

Wood, a staff writer at The New Yorker and former chief literary critic at the Guardian and The New Republic, is often called America’s preeminent literary critic. In “How Fiction Works,” Wood attempts to do for literature what Ruskin did for drawing: distill the messy alchemy of art into a single, coherent system.

And for the most part – through 10 chapters, stacked loosely atop one other, and spilling over at the margins with erudition – he succeeds, spectacularly.

Drawing on his own vast fund of reading, Wood seeks out those moments when novelists come closest to achieving “lifeness” – or at least “the nearest thing to life” – in their art. One of the great pleasures in reading “How Fiction Works” comes from savoring the carefully selected passages that Wood chooses to illustrate his points.


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