Books: Too many novelists are doomed

The Broken Estate by James Wood Cape pounds 16.99
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The Independent Culture
James Wood is an unusual critic. I knew him when he was starting out as a reviewer, and I was impressed then by the seriousness that he brought to the work, so that the slightest novel would be fiercely interrogated, and so that each review was more than a report on the individual work - it was a step in a long exploration of what made fiction great and what made it fail. That seriousness has brought him his own critics in Britain; it is often seen here as needlessly pretentious and cruel to hold contemporary fiction to a high standard. But this book of essays stands as a vindication of Wood's project.

This is not just, as I thought it would be, a collection of Wood's best reviews. For the past few years Wood has been publishing essays rather than reviews, mainly in the American weekly The New Republic, and those are used here, often in a remoulded form, together with new material. The result is not simply a collection of journalism, but a book that can be read slowly and savoured, and that will last. My favourite essays here are not those that deal with contemporary fiction, but with canonical authors. Wood's essay on Flaubert, for instance, is a jewel; it shows us how Flaubert's self-conscious stylishness created an orthodoxy that we now take absolutely for granted in contemporary fiction, based on the primacy of precise visual detail.

But this book tries to do something wider than assess individual writers; Wood attempts an overall view of the power of fiction. He maintains that fiction creates a world to which we can freely give or withhold belief, and in this way, by embracing what Wood calls belief "as if", fiction challenges the belief-system of religion, which never allows for questioning. Wood sees this effect of fiction as historical, in that the heyday of the novel coincided with the beginning of the end for Western religious certainty; and also personal, in that his love of fiction gave him an alternative to his parents' evangelicalism. Wood certainly shows himself more than capable of handling this ambitious material - his discussion of the failures of Thomas More's morality or Don Cupitt's fudged rationalism is as satisfying in its restless intelligence as his discussion of Flaubert's use of visual detail. But he doesn't press his argument beyond a certain point, and you feel he could have fought longer and harder for his case.

Since this is a book of essays rather than one sustained argument the best moments here are disparate, and too numerous to be engaged with fully in one review. I will remember not just the Flaubert essay, but also, for example, Wood's revelatory observations on how Austen's heroines read other characters in the same way that we read a novel, and his characterisation of Chekhov's prose style as "beautifully accidental ... it allows forgetfulness into fiction." He can also be treasured for what he gets right about why writers fail: he is spot on about John Updike's amoral sensuality, and what a relief to read a critic who doesn't just fall over himself to lick Updike's smart boots.

The abiding strength of Wood's work is that he looks at a writer's work closely and then from a dizzying distance - he will describe the veins of a leaf and then the scale of the forest, with no sense of strain. So we move from the repetition of a single word in a sentence of D H Lawrence's, to a discussion of his mysticism. This is the way to read fiction, closely, and yet with an ear to the larger rhythms. But although wonderful on the leaf and superb on the forest, Wood can sometimes be dismissive of the tree - he is fascinated by the single sentence and the philosophical overview, but he isn't always interested in, say, the characters. "It is strange that Amis would think that a receding hairline and an inability to pull girls supports any analysis," he says peremptorily about the concerns of one of Martin Amis's protagonists. But, really, if the march towards mortality and the loss of sexual ardour is not worthy of any analysis, too many novelists are doomed.

Still, by running so fast, coming in close and then standing right back, Wood avoids platitude and keeps readers on their toes. And you get so grateful for the exercise that you can forgive Wood a touch of self-congratulation when he tells us what an important thing this critical journey is: "Literature and literary criticism share the same language ... The language of metaphor is the language of this secret sharing," he says, ostensibly about Virginia Woolf's criticism but surely also about his own.

For Wood loves metaphor. Take the very first sentence of the book: "The real is the atlas of fiction, over which all novelists thirst." He means that fiction writers see "the real" as travellers see an atlas. But the metaphor looks obscure; why does he choose an atlas, which is, after all, just a mediation of the physical world, as the traveller's inspiration? As well as his baroque use of metaphor, his prose bristles with ornate adjectival phrases, whose effects are usually luminous. But now and again his language seems too easily decorative - although he tells Toni Morrison off for using "gorgeous" where it adds little to the moment in question, "gorgeous", along with "beautiful" and "lovely", are adjectives that keep turning up here. "This is beautiful," he urges about a complicated descriptive passage from Flaubert; "It is one of Woolf's most beautiful similes," he says, again about a densely intelligent image; Emma Bovary is a "beautiful creation". He notes the "lovely cortege" of some lines from The Waste Land; a "lovely example" of realism in Joseph Roth; he sighs over Melville's "gorgeous play of metaphor"; Chekhov's "gorgeous lunges".

But these are small criticisms of a book that makes you feel, having closed it, as if your mind has been oxygenated. While most reviewers tend to fall back on preconceived notions of good style, based mainly on their desire not to be challenged by fiction, Wood stands out for his desire to re-mint critical thought. He has the capacity to alert you all over again to the wonder of a single cadence, pulled out of the heart of a novel. He also forces you to reconsider what it is we mean when we say that a novel is real, is true, is great. There is no more, really, that we can ask of a critic.