I mentioned the other week my disappointment about James Wood's How Fiction Works. One of the first rules of book reviewing, surely, is that you review the book at hand on its own terms? No point complaining that a book called, say, The History of Rugby has nothing in its pages about football. A fair review of How Fiction Works, then, would critique and/or praise its terminology, its history, its readings and its style. It would judge what it was setting out to teach and see if it achieved its own goals. Wood sticks close to the commonly used critical lexicon (and is very good at explaining free indirect style which has, effectively, become his phrase), contextualises the books he reads, is a conscientious and voracious reader, and whilst he exclaims a little too often and sometimes confuses approbation with attentiveness, is a fairly decent writer in his own right too. What How Fiction Works sets out to do it does well enough. I wish it had been a more ambitious book and I wish Wood's oft-remarked intelligence was more clearly on show (his book is a good crib, no more); but it does what it does very well.
My problem with How Fiction Works then is, to some extent, rather beside the point. Articulating my problem with it contravenes that first rule of book reviewing that I mentioned above, but a footnote to the rule is that it is surely right to point out, regardless of its local felicities, whether a book is wrong-headed. My problem with How Fiction Works is that how fiction works is not a very interesting question (hence Wood's perfectly adequate answer becomes a not particularly interesting book).
When faced with a novel, I'm not reading as a practitioner or would-be practitioner. Close reading, for me, isn't an attempt to unlock a code, it isn't about seeing how it has all been done, so I can then go away, tooled-up, and create a version of it myself.
I'm not interested in such unpicking, but not because I don't want to "ruin the magic" or some such: I'm not interested because I think far more interesting questions about the novel need to be asked. It seems to me that asking how fiction works is a very dull question indeed next to the existential one that really matters: why fiction is.