James Wood   How Fiction Works.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 252 pages, $24

Admirers of James Wood’s essay collections The Broken Estate (1999) and The Irresponsible Self (2004) will know that he has a superb eye for detail and a pithy style, and readers of his novel The Book Against God (2003) will know that he can sustain our attention through a narrative. How Fiction Works offers itself as a primer of technique and also as an enquiry into the nature of realism. The book is divided into numbered sections, which proceed irrespective of the chapters on character, dialogue, perspective and so on, and suggest that it has more of a unity than is actually the case. Wood admits that the division into chapters is slightly artificial, since all these matters tend to merge into one another. As a result, although we are frequently arrested by a virtuoso passage of analysis, the book tends to...

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