"How Fiction Works"

James Wood makes writing about literature seem like a tributary of the thing itself. In two previous volumes of essays ("The Broken Estate" and "The Irresponsible Self"), and in reviews primarily now for The New Yorker, the British-born critic has combined an almost monastic concentration with apostolic zest -- Henry James sharing a soul with Saul Bellow. And while he is best known for decisive, even eviscerating, pronouncements on contemporary titans (famously grouping Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, and others as "hysterical realists"), Wood has also been an exuberant critic, lavish with gratitude and astonishment, as when he wrote of a passage in a novel by Bohumil Hrabal that it "runs on a thousand feet."

This combination of rigor and ecstasy, relentless argument and uninhibited delight, sets Wood apart as our most important critic. Detractors find him cranky and old-fashioned, too nostalgic for Chekhov to appreciate the daring of Pynchon. Admirers such as Cynthia Ozick find him uniquely authoritative. "It is not enough to have one Wood," Ozick gushed in a recent Harper's essay. "What is needed is a thicket -- a forest -- of Woods." I confess to siding with Ozick, not only because Wood seems to pluck whatever he needs from the whole of literature to make his case, and not only because his prose is so vigorous (Dostoevsky's "Underground Man" is "an anti-bourgeois banshee"), but chiefly because he seems so invested in the work, submerged in a book's depths, demanding and even needing something from it.

There is some of Wood's notorious polemical edge in his latest book, "How Fiction Works." David Foster Wallace, he writes, "is very good at becoming the whole of boredom." And this duelist's glove is cast at the feet of indulgent reviewers everywhere: "We must proceed on the assumption that almost all prose popularly acclaimed as beautiful ... is nothing of the sort." Mostly Wood offers a generous, accessible but learned celebration of fictional technique, of the artistry that gives literature its lift. Divided into more than 100 brief sections, with passing discussions of nearly 100 literary works, this book has, by Wood's standards, a casual feel (a few sentences on Tolstoy here, a few on Updike there). But the casualness is deceptive because the observations still advance and accumulate his vision of literature as a quest for "truthfulness to the way things are," an intensification of what he finally calls, a little awkwardly, "lifeness."

In contrast, a recent book by Thomas C. Foster, "How to Read Novels Like a Professor" (Harper, 304 pages), which has some of the same purposes as Wood's, dubs itself "jaunty" and never strains for a larger vision. With Wood (to paraphrase Nabokov), I doubt he could give you his phone number without giving some of his aesthetic away.

One of Wood's favorite subjects involves how characters project the illusion of freedom, how, to quote his first book, they "mislay their scripts" and "forget to be themselves." When a tailor in "David Copperfield," for example, "prattles on without embarrassment," despite a young man's grief, Wood sees in him an artistic ideal: "Something true is revealed here about the self and its irrepressibility or irresponsibility -- the little riot of freedom in otherwise orderly souls, the self's chink of freedom, its gratuity or surplus, its tip to itself." And in "War and Peace," when a prisoner about to be executed adjusts his uncomfortable blindfold, Wood finds in that meaningless twitch the "irrelevance" of life itself.

It is interesting, in this respect, that Wood rejects E.M. Forster's now-commonplace distinction between "round" and "flat" characters. Our instinct may be to judge a book's success on the basis of our sympathy with its main characters, which we expect to be "round," fully realized. Wood suggests that something more than just lifelikeness should be at stake. The key is not a cinematic fullness -- here is what the character looks like, and here is her house and the kind of car she drives and what she says on her cell phone in traffic -- but rather an artistic pressure. This is what Wood finds compelling about one of his favorite writers, Henry James: "what makes [his characters] vivid is the force of James's interest in them, his manner of pressing into their clay with his examining fingers: they are sites of human energy; they vibrate with James's anxious concern for them." In too many novels the writer seems to photograph the scene rather than energize it. Wood, a lover of style and flourish, confesses that he "chokes" on too much visual detail.

The second major focus of "How Fiction Works" is language itself -- how detail is used, how voice is established, and how metaphor works. In these discussions, Wood is at his most surgical but also his most robust. His own criticism here and elsewhere is mobilized by aphorism, metaphor, even overstatement: Jesus is dubbed "that cheerless psychologist"; a pair of words by D.H. Lawrence "enjoy each other's company"; the style of a sentence by Philip Roth moves "up and down like a manic EKG," and a metaphor by Virginia Woolf ("The day waves yellow with all its crops") provokes in Wood an almost rapturous response: "I am consumed by this sentence, partly because I cannot quite explain why it moves me so much." While Wood's writing can be formal and forbidding -- pitched to the academy -- this kind of gusting confession acknowledges the ordinary reader, who turns to fiction to be moved and delighted, consumed by characters and sentences.

There is justifiable anxiety about the craft of book reviewing these days, in part because of newspaper cuts and the brave new world of the Web, in part because of the state of criticism itself. (Ronan McDonald's recent book, "The Death of the Critic," offered a concise, persuasive overview of the challenges.) If Wood is the way forward, it is because passion is the way forward: criticism defending not its own status primarily but that of the novels, stories and poems it describes -- because we still need something from literature that other things don't provide. Here is Wood near the end of his new book, which all devoted readers and certainly every hopeful novelist will want to acquire with some haste: "And in our own reading lives, every day, we come across that blue river of truth, curling somewhere; we encounter scenes and moments and perfectly placed words in fiction and poetry, in film and drama, which strike us with their truth, which move and sustain us, which shake habit's house to its foundations: King Lear asking forgiveness of Cordelia; Lady Macbeth hissing at her husband during the banquet; Pierre almost executed by French soldiers in 'War and Peace,' the tattered band of survivors wandering the city streets in Saramago's 'Blindness' ... " Wood's examples scroll on. Criticism running on a thousand feet.