James Wood’s latest book, How Fiction Works, isn’t the writer’s guide its school-primerish title and design suggest. A more appropriate title might be What Fiction Works for Me, The New Yorker’s Literary Critic: His study of metaphor, style, character, and other elements of the form is a conversation with himself about who best reflects the “lifeness” of our existence. Among the most lifeness-y are V.S. Naipaul, Marilynne Robinson, and above all Gustave Flaubert; falling short are Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace, brilliant but thuggish representatives of the “enormous condescension of postmodernism.” Wood cares plenty about the music of language but little for plot (which has an “essential juvenility”), just one more clue that his book is designed more for arguing over than using. If Wood’s stone-throwing doesn’t make for lively discussion, bail and browse the shelves for a copy of Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer, which is equally studious and offers practical advice to boot. JAMES WOOD READS AT 7 P.M. AT POLITICS AND PROSE, 5015 CONNECTICUT AVE. NW. FREE. (202) 364-1919.

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