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.
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.
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