Literary critic Wood tackles the intricacies of fiction

“The Nearest Thing to Life” by James Wood (Brandeis University Press, 134 pages, $19.95)

The four essays that make up “The Nearest Thing to Life” will not be every reader’s cup of tea, but they are mine.

Wood is a literary critic, essayist and novelist, a professor at Harvard University and a staff writer at the New Yorker magazine.

These essays, based on lectures Wood gave at Brandeis University and at the British Museum, tackle different aspects of literary art. The title comes from George Eliot, who called art “the nearest thing to life.”

The first essay, “Why?,” begins with reflections on a funeral Wood attended. “The Why? question,” he writes, “is a refusal to accept death.” He mentions theodicy, “the formal term for the attempt to reconcile the suffering and the meaninglessness of life with the notion of a providential, benign and powerful deity,” then reflects on his childhood.

But soon he gets to literature, his specialty. Fiction, he says, represents the freedom that “anything can be thought, anything written, that thought is utterly free.” In fiction, he says, “we assert the humane, nonreligious right to separate thinking from doing.”

The freedom of fiction is that we as readers interact with its imagined world. Wood writes: “The real, in fiction, is always a matter of belief – it is up to us as readers to validate and confirm.”

The second essay, “Serious Noticing,” considers the importance of detail in fiction. Wood writes: “Details are not, of course, just bits of life: they represent that magical fusion, wherein the maximum amount of literary artifice (the writer’s genius for selection and imaginative creation) produces a simulacrum of the maximum amount of nonliterary or actual life, a process whereby artifice is then indeed converted into (fictional, which is to say, new) life.”

In “Using Everything,” Wood calls metaphor “the language of literature, and hence of literary criticism.” It is also “akin to an imaginative identification.” Thus, “when we read about fictional characters a metaphorical transaction is going on.”

The final essay, “Secular Homelessness,” based on a talk he gave at the British Museum, is the weakest. Nevertheless, he makes interesting observations: “To be in between two places, to be at home in neither, is the inevitable fallen state, almost as natural as being at home in one place.”

Like his earlier book, “How Fiction Works,” this new one can be used as a primer for writers. Wood refers to many writers and works from across the centuries. And if you can overlook his occasional harping against theism, you’ll find many useful insights.

As I said, such a book will not be everyone’s – or most people’s – cup of tea. But for lovers of literature and for writers, it is a rich, rewarding book.

Gordon Houser is a writer and editor in North Newton.