Sunday, February 03, 2008

James WOOD and The Art of Reviewing

I AM GLAD to note that a new group of book reviewers are developing in Malaysia at the moment. Reviewers like Janet Tay, Sharon Bakar, Daphne Lee, Yasmin Ahmad, Dina Zaman, Elizabeth Tai, Michael Cheang, Eudora Lynn, Shakeel Abedi, Alan Wong, Ahnaf, Martin Spice, Boey Ping Ping, Tan May Lee, Alexandra Wong, Li-Hsian Choo, Jamie Khoo, Sarah Chew and Ted Mahsun augur well for the book reading culture in Malaysia. Book reviewing is basically writing about books, a primary form of literary criticism. There are now more bookshops in Malaysia and there are people who actually enjoy reading “literary fiction.” For those who do not know what literary fiction is, literary fiction ain’t “love stories” like some people I know think it is. It just means fiction of a higher level. There are no papers in Malaysia—with the exception of The Star, of course—that devote a generous number of pages to books and all matters literary—book reviews, author interviews, literary events, industry news, etc.

Photograph © Miriam Berkley

Talking about book reviewing reminds me of James Wood. When Wood started writing about books in the early 1990s, book reviewing wasn’t much considered a proper occupation. He wrote for the Guardian and the London Review of Books before becoming literary editor at the New Republic in the U.S. A staff writer at The New Yorker magazine and the Adjunct Professor of the Practice of Literary Criticism at Harvard University, he is today considered by many to be the pre-eminent literary critic of our generation. I especially enjoy reading his really, really long essays on literature and the ways of the world. Wood is the author of two books of criticism: The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief (1999) and The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel (2004), as well as a novel, The Book Against God (2003). And this month he has a new book out, How Fiction Works (Jonathan Cape/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008), an erudite yet entertaining mixed bag of provocative essays, perhaps his most accessible work of literary criticism. Many literary critics have praised Wood for his sublime critical insights and his refreshing intellectual honesty. “I try to ask some of the essential questions about the art of fiction. Is realism real? How do we define a successful metaphor? What is a character? When do we recognise a brilliant use of detail in fiction?,” Wood writes in the introduction.

“Novelists should thank Flaubert the way poets thank spring:
it all began with him.” James Wood

Anyone who enjoys reading and writing book reviews (and would like to bring these pursuits to the next level) and those who would like to write fiction would do well to read Wood’s new collection of literary essays. There is much we can learn here. It is almost like learning from the very best in the world.

Suggested Reads
1. Reading Life: Books for the Ages (Graywolf Press, 2007) / Sven Birkerts
2. Inner Workings: Essays 2000-2005 (Harvill Secker, 2007; Vintage, 2008) / J.M. Coetzee
3. Stranger Shores: Literary Essays 1986-1999 (Secker & Warburg/Viking Penguin, 2001) / J.M. Coetzee
4. Why Read the Classics? (Vintage, 2001) (first published by Pantheon in 1999) / Italo Calvino
5. Classics for Pleasure (Harcourt, 2007) / Michael Dirda
6. Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life (Harcourt, 2006) / Michael Dirda
7. An Open Book: Chapters from a Reader’s Life (W.W. Norton, 2004) / Michael Dirda
8. Aspects of the Novel (1927) / E.M. Forster
9. The Curtain (Faber & Faber, 2007) / Milan Kundera
10. A History of Reading (Penguin, 1997) (first published by Viking in 1996) / Alberto Manguel
11. The Things That Matter: What Seven Classic Novels Have to Say About the Stages of Life (Anchor Books, 2007) (first published by Pantheon Books in 2006) / Edward Mendelson
12. How Novels Work (Oxford University Press, 2006) / John Mullan
13. Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them (HarperCollins, 2006) / Francine Prose

How Fiction Works is published by Jonathan Cape


Blogger bibliobibuli said...

thnaks eric, both for the mention and for recommending james wood's books. i want 'em.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008 5:16:00 AM  
Blogger Hsian said...

I want them too! :) Thanks for the kind mention Eric. Reviewing is great as it allows me to check out books I may ordinarily not pick up really. Like trying new tidbits!

Monday, February 11, 2008 9:04:00 AM  
Blogger Ted Mahsun said...

Hehe! It's a funny kind of feeling seeing my name next to the word "augur".

btw, thanks for mentioning to Shirley about me wanting to review more books. Have with me Stephen King's latest!

Monday, February 11, 2008 8:16:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Definitely one for the bookshelf!

Tuesday, February 12, 2008 5:00:00 AM  
Blogger lucid frog said...

I really enjoy reading your blog Mr Forbes, i want those books now :)

Tuesday, February 12, 2008 8:00:00 PM  
Blogger Jim H. said...

I appreciate your selection of books about fiction-writing, most of which I either own or have read. I am a fiction writer and am currently reading James Wood's How Fiction Works and blogging about it over at Wisdom of the West. Stop in for a visit or a chat.
Jim H.

Saturday, February 16, 2008 12:31:00 PM  
Blogger Eric Forbes said...

Thanks for the link, Jim! I enjoyed your dissection of James Wood's new collection of literary criticism. I will be visiting your blog often.

Saturday, February 16, 2008 4:34:00 PM  
Anonymous Ping Ping said...

Eric, I'm touched. Was just googling my name to see what would pop up and whaddya know...

Friday, October 10, 2008 8:13:00 PM  
Anonymous Elizabeth Tai said...

Lol, never thought my name would appear on your esteemed blog! Am really honoured.

I read mostly non-fiction though, and the ocassional "trash". ;) I'm not picky!

Saturday, October 11, 2008 1:53:00 AM  
Blogger Eric Forbes said...

Hello Ping Ping and Elizabeth:
Thanks for stopping by. I enjoy both fiction and nonfiction. And I do enjoy the occasional mass market paperback. I am currently reading Jeffrey Archer's A Prisoner of Birth, and relishing it very much.

Saturday, October 11, 2008 2:29:00 AM  

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