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The Fun Stuff, By James Wood

A master of 'lit-crit' dissects the mechanics of good and bad writing in this essay collection.

In the longest essay from his new collection, James Wood considers Edmund Wilson's role in the American modernist milieu: "It is invigorating to be reminded of how steely and objective Wilson was as a critic, and how the writers he pressed to give the best of themselves came to rely on the critic's clear-running judgement." Wood sounds like he's elegising an era of respectful cooperation while bemoaning the prospect of Jonathan Lethem or Zadie Smith heeding his insights the way that Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway relished Wilson's critiques. The Fun Stuff, however, demonstrates why Wood is one of the most influential, illuminating literary critics at work today.

Wood occasionally parodies writers he wishes to admonish but he's better at creating synergies between his own style and those he praises. His responses to Lydia Davis's short stories are concise and philosophical, Geoff Dyer is complemented in a deceptively louche review and the essay on Wilson flirts with rambunctious grandeur. Whereas the American critic veered from "an aesthetic account of a work towards biographical speculation and cultural instruction," Wood locates fiction's psychological and social impetus in language.

As a practical critic, Wood is interested in the mechanics of fiction and wary of literary theory. He articulates and challenges our instincts, explaining how Tolstoy disrupts readers' complacency by introducing moral complexity while Ian McEwan's narrative surprises "keep meaning under control". Cormac McCarthy's "tolling, fatal sentences make the reader shiver," but "solacing theological optimism" means The Road avoids the deepest questions. Encountering criticism of books we enjoy can feel alienating but Wood's aesthetic standards inspire closer reading and higher expectations. He demolishes Paul Auster's "laughable seriousness" but is more compelling when demanding that writers like McEwan and McCarthy, both of whom he admires, "give the best of themselves."

Wood's attempts to put himself in the writer's position are brave and well-judged. "Fiction has," he says in a defence of Joseph O'Neill's Netherland, "an entrepreneurial element." Critical and creative intelligence combine in a subtle piece which argues that Revolutionary Road is less concerned with suburban stupor than gender politics. The notion that literature can surpass its creators recurs when Wood recalls Susan Sontag's claim that her essays were more intelligent than she was, "because she worked so hard at them, and expanded into them over several months of writing".

Emphatic studies of Thomas Hardy, VS Naipaul and George Orwell negotiate their subjects' contradictions. They feature personal anecdotes – dining at an Indian buffet with Naipaul, discovering "The Lion and the Unicorn" as an Eton scholarship boy – which point towards the autobiographical departures that bookend The Fun Stuff. In the title piece, Wood hails The Who drummer Keith Moon's "combination of the artful and artless" and remembers his own adolescent drumming as an escape from self-consciousness. In the closing essay, packing his late father-in-law's books leads Wood to wonder if we build our libraries as barriers to knowableness.

It's tempting to state the obvious – that The Fun Stuff warrants a place on our shelves – but a better observation is made by Wood about the protagonist of Revolutionary Road: "Frank is Yates without the writing." Libraries may reveal little about lives but "the writing" counts for a lot.

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