Why do we read fiction and why do we need a literary critic to comment on what we read? Seduced by a review in the Guardian and beguiled by the title, despite feeling distinctly unqualified, I thought I’d give this short book, a blend of memoir and criticism, a go. I was looking for ideas on how to improve my own fiction writing and reviewing and, failing that, insights into why so many of us have a passion for books.
The latter was the subject of the first section and, for me, the most engaging. As a child, James Wood found in fiction, as I did, “an utterly free space, where anything might be thought, anything uttered” as a refuge from the restrictions of the religious culture of his home. Wood argues that, while in principle we have the freedom to think what we like, we’re afraid of that freedom: “we nervously step up to the edge of allowable thought, and then trigger the scrutiny of the censuring superego” (p11). Fiction lets us explore that otherness in a containing manner, the fictional characters whose minds we are privileged to inhabit, holding our hands along the way.
In the way that knowledge of our impending death does (or should) help us value the life we have, great writing, Wood tells us, demands that we look more closely at the world we see. Just as a painting of a tree requires us to look in a way that we might not otherwise, through metaphor and imagery, fiction pushes us to look at life (p50). The detail we examine in fiction “is always someone’s detail” (p38); in other words, he’s drawing our attention to the centrality of point of view.
The critic uses the medium of the artform (i.e. words and especially metaphor) to enable the reader to see the text as they do (p82). I’m afraid I either misunderstood, or disagreed with, this section (or perhaps both), for it seems to me that (as novelist Shelley Harris said in a Q&A with me) the story is co-created between reader and writer and I envisage the same process between reader and critic. Wood says “As Shakespeare must imagine himself into the role of Macbeth, so the reader must do so, too, and is thus partaking of the creative act” (p82) but the reader might nevertheless create a slightly different Macbeth to the one Shakespeare intended.
An Englishman who has lived for the past eighteen years in the USA, Wood seems to identify with the concept of the émigré writer. As a-stay-at-home woman, I didn’t connect with much in this last section until the very end, when he addresses the impact of life-changing choice, the subject of my debut novel, Sugar and Snails. Wood puts it beautifully (p114-5):
When I left England eighteen years ago, I didn’t know then how strangely departure would obliterate return: how could I have known? It’s one of time’s lessons, and can only be learned temporally. What is peculiar, even a little bitter, about living for so many years away from the country of my birth is the slow revelation that I made a large choice many years ago that did not resemble a large choice at the time; that it has taken years for me to see this; and that this process of retrospective comprehension in fact constitutes a life – is indeed how life is lived.
Thanks to Jonathan Cape for my review copy.