It was the kind of meeting that even the most hardened critics try to avoid. When James Wood started teaching part time at Harvard in 2003, where Zadie Smith was a fellow, he knew their paths would cross. 'I need not to know the writer I'm writing about negatively,' says Wood, 42, who is almost universally regarded as the finest book critic of his generation, if not the world. 'Suddenly you meet the author and they say, 'This was me you hurt', and they sort of break the terms of the review. It must remain abstract.' In a devastating critique of Smith's White Teeth in 2000, Wood coined the phrase 'hysterical realism' to describe the trend for sprawling novels that mimic the chaos of contemporary reality through deliberately raucous prose and congested plots. He charged Smith, Jonathan Franzen, Salman Rushdie, Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon with inaugurating a breed of novel, filled with social commentary and cultural trivia, in which 'the conventions of realism are not being abolished but, on the contrary, exhausted, and overworked'. When Smith and Wood finally met, their encounter was far from hostile. 'She takes on board everything you've said and wants to incorporate it. She's a serious artist in that she's perhaps too self-scrutinising,' he says. The same self-deprecating streak applies to Wood. When he became chief book critic of Britain's The Guardian at 26, he was already renowned in England for critical judgments of such erudition and brutality that you'd expect him to brook no self doubt. But as Wood leaves the Harvard seminar room where he's been lecturing undergraduates on Virginia Woolf's novel To the Lighthouse and walks to a cafe sporting a professorial tweed coat, he reflects critically on his own work with all the rigour of his essays. He's perplexed that 'hysterical realism' has entered the language of criticism and taken on a meaning that he never intended. 'It seems so imprecise to me,' says Wood. 'It just seems like journalistic phrase-making. It seems not to have the fleshed-out density of a proper critical term.' What does he make of the idea that our rumbustious, media-saturated times call for similarly haphazard fiction? 'I don't have any problem with representing the weirdness of American reality - it's when it gets conflated with this idea that in our postmodern age the subject can't speak authentically because it's written over by so many discourses,' says Wood, who hunches low over the table throughout the interview. 'There are more discourses and it's more intense, but I don't think it's new. And fiction's job is not simply to say, 'This is what it's like, I'll go with it.' It should excite in us a resistance.' Wood's proselytising tone was sternest in his first book, The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief (1999), a collection of essays with a moral seriousness not seen since F.R. Leavis and Lionel Trilling. It reflected Wood's preference for novels that enable the reader to believe in their fictional world, similar to the opportunity for unquestioning faith once provided by Christianity. His touchstones - among them Anton Chekhov, Saul Bellow, Nikolai Gogol, D.H. Lawrence and W.G. Sebald - are writers who seek meaning and moral value while creating an intimacy with the reader at odds with the alienating effects of much contemporary literature. Wood's 2004 collection, The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel, struck a lighter note. Wood focused on 'the comedy of forgiveness' - a form of laughter inclined towards sympathy - rather than the tendentious satire of 'the comedy of correction'. 'The Broken Estate was a rather solemn, almost Eliotic, hallowed, quite harsh book. I wanted The Irresponsible Self to be more comic and praising,' he says. His new book, How Fiction Works, finds Wood at his most celebratory. In 123 numbered paragraphs he examines the fundamentals of fiction - including detail, character, language, narrative and dialogue - in the vein of E.M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel (1927) and Wayne Booth's The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961). 'How Fiction Works is the fruit of a decision that I've done enough negating. Everyone knows what I don't like - so, 'What do I like, and why do I like it?'' It's a brilliant but also uncharacteristically restrained book, with few of the magisterial rhetorical flourishes of Wood's essays. 'The book comes out of the teaching that I've been doing since 2003. It's a more obviously pedagogical work than anything I've done before.' The same genial and witty voice of How Fiction Works comes through in Wood's seminars. He cuts a relaxed figure; departing from the often ideological nature of university literary studies, he asks basic questions such as: 'What do you like about this book?' Wood listens attentively, chewing on his pen, as a student comments that he felt Woolf was 'mean' in flippantly announcing a character's death in parentheses. That innocence, Wood tells me without condescension, is why he finds teaching undergraduates invigorating. 'I'm trying to keep alive some notion that there is this noble form of criticism that has nothing to do with the academy,' he says. Last August Wood became a staff writer at The New Yorker (circulation: 1.1 million) after 12 years at the Washington-based New Republic (circulation: 62,000). But at The New Yorker his highbrow essays will have to contend with a more amorphous readership. 'The test will be: can a reasonably complex general literary criticism, that doesn't cede its sophistication to populism, go on in a mainstream magazine that's read by a million people a week?' Wood's hiring has surely displeased some New Yorker fixtures. The magazine is the career-long home of John Updike, about whom Wood once wrote: 'At his worst, his prose is a harmless, puffy lyricism, a seigneurial gratuity, as if language were just a meaningless bill to a very rich man and Updike adding a lazy 10 per cent tip to each sentence.' The New Yorker has also been one of the elephantine critic George Steiner's main stamping grounds. Wood has likened Steiner's prose to 'the sweat of a statue that wishes to be a monument' with its 'platoon-like massing of its adjectives, its cathedral hush around the great works'. But taking down literary giants has lost its glamour for Wood. It's not that he's mellowed, he says, just grown bored of sounding similar. But he envisages occasionally surprising himself with 'a perfectly foul piece about something that needs to be prosecuted'. Evangelism runs in Wood's blood. He was raised in a fundamentalist Christian household in Durham, England, the son of a zoology professor and a teacher who spoke in tongues. By 15 he'd broken with God but come alive to the secular power of literature. The pulpit-thumping zeal of Wood's criticism, with its unfashionable insistence on transcendent truths, suggests that perhaps his religiosity wasn't lost so much as redirected into literature. But the trumpet-playing Wood says that if his love of literature originated anywhere it was in music. 'An ear for beauty, repetition and patterns was trained in me early. I'm not sure I transferred the religious impulse wholesale onto literature, not least because I delight in the novel's secularism,' he muses. 'The zeal is temperamental, so maybe I just have a religious zeal.' After completing his degree in English at Cambridge, Wood chose to work as a freelance book reviewer rather than pursue a doctorate. At Cambridge he met his wife, Canadian-American novelist Claire Messud, with whom he has two young children, Lucian and Livia. They moved to London, where Wood followed what he saw as the romantic idea of making a living from the pen. He recalls nostalgically the pre-internet days of delivering copy to newspapers. 'I was just at the tail end of this thing of finishing the piece and materially handling it - either faxing it through, or often just getting on a bike and taking it into The Guardian because it was late.' Wood still finds writing a chore, typically waiting until the day before an essay is due before starting it, then working through the night. Wood's precocity as a critic was a double-edged scythe when it came to writing his own novel. 'The more I wrote about fiction, and the more I demanded from novels, the more other people - and, indeed, my own inner voice - would say, 'Where's the beef?' I got into a funk.' At 35, he made a pledge: 'Either you do it now or you'll never do it.' Published to mixed reviews, The Book Against God was, in some ways, a typical autobiographical first novel. Wood's anti-hero, Thomas Bunting, is the son of a parish priest who has turned his back on his parents' values to write a mammoth debunking of religion - the book of the title. But Wood's parents were more dogmatic than the Buntings. 'I wanted to take someone like me, but instead of saying, 'Oh poor me, I had such religious parents,' flip the question around and say, 'Poor Thomas, his parents are all too genial, all too excellent. What the hell is he complaining about?'' It was inevitable that the novel would be measured against Wood's critical standards. Indeed, the ferocity of some reviews suggested Wood's detractors had been waiting for his novelistic debut to exact their revenge. Wood concedes that he broke his rules against being too essayistic and allegorical. As he wrote of Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon: 'Pynchon uses allegory to hide truth, and in so doing expands allegory into a fetish of itself.' Above all, Wood thinks his novel suffered from overwriting. 'The stuff I write in How Fiction Works about detail, but also about writing over characters, relates to my tendency as a novelist to put in passages of fine writing which I should have kept out.' Undeterred by the attacks, Wood is writing another novel - albeit, he says, 'with a lot less God stuff in it this time'. He muses about the possibility of issuing it under a pseudonym, then outing himself as its author after the reviews. He plans to bring out a third collection of criticism, but thinks three books of essays might be enough. 'Will it be more impressive when I'm 60 and I've published seven of these identical collections?' Instead, he hopes The New Yorker will allow him to try other forms of writing. Like his erstwhile hero George Orwell, who was as eloquent in describing a Leo Tolstoy novel as the shooting of an elephant, Wood is eager to venture into less bookish terrain. 'It would mean giving up an anxiety to seem intellectually in charge, and just following the world, letting the real come to you.' Meanwhile, we can look forward to his second novel. But it might be a while before we know it's by James Wood. Writer's notes Name: James Wood Genres: Literary criticism, fiction Latest book: How Fiction Works (Jonathan Cape) Next project: Another novel Age: 42 Family: Married to novelist Claire Messud; two children Lives: Cambridge, Massachusetts Other books: The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief (1999); The Book Against God (2003); The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel (2004) Other jobs: English literature academic What the critics say: 'He seems not to have noticed that literary study has been squeezed closer to the margins, that the written word has ceded space to images flashed on screens big and small.' - St. Petersburg Times Author's bookshelf Loving by Henry Green 'A neglected 1945 novel, written almost entirely in cockney dialogue spoken by servants. It's as good as the speech in Shakespeare's comedies.' To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf 'In re-reading after re-reading it never fails to move me.' The Loser by Thomas Bernhard 'Amazing, crazy, radical novel about a man whose dream is to be Glenn Gould. It's a great commentary on failure: he can't be Glenn Gould because he can't play the piano as well.' Minima Moralia by Theodor Adorno 'A book of fragmented paragraphs - philosophical, tragic and complex.'