Is ‘New Yorker’ Critic James Wood Creating an Army of Like-minded Young Novelists?

Photo: Photo-illustration: Everett Bogue; Photos: Getty Images, istockphoto

Indisputably, the answer is yes, as revealed by Leon Neyfakh in the Observer. Wood, the recently hired book critic at The New Yorker, just released his own book, How Fiction Works, a prescriptive guide to writing. Specifically, it's a prescriptive guide to writing the kind of book that James Wood loves the best — the high-realist novel, which focuses on character and dialogue rather than on stylistic flourishes. And writers are starting to listen.

A few years ago, Wood coined the term "hysterical realism" in a review of Zadie Smith's White Teeth to describe the kind of novel he doesn't like, and unbelievably, a chastened Zadie Smith pledged to change her ways. And she's not the last! Alarmingly, it seems like more and more young writers — intrigued by the notion of a positive review in The New Yorker, or just seduced by Wood's British accent — are adopting Wood's preferred style. Neyfakh turns up writers at two of the country's most prestigious M.F.A. programs — Columbia and Iowa — who are already tailoring their work to be more, well, Woody. Wood even taught a workshop at Columbia in the "free indirect" style of which he's a proponent.

So fine, Wood is turning the world's young writers into an army of like-minded litterateurs. But what is he going to do with them once he's got them assembled? Are his plans peaceful? Or does he intend for his armies to depose Sam Tanenhaus at the Times Book Review? Storm the Random House building? Take over the publishing world? There's a new literary sheriff in town, folks, and you better walk the stylistic straight and narrow. Too many adjectives in your first novel, and you'll be strung up, cowboy.

The Wood Workshop: How Critic Became A One-Man School [NYO]