Sunday, 28 December 2008

The Life of Fiction: James Wood’s How Fiction Works

Perhaps because critical theory has rendered the subject so fraught, it is unusual these days to see any literary critic dare define the nature of fiction itself. James Wood, however, is an unusual critic. An aesthete who emerged from academia at the height of the theory invasion, Wood has the air of a refugee. Like a dissident writer exiled from his homeland, he bears the mark of the culture he left behind, both in what he has rejected and what he has embraced.

Wood, who was recently took a new job as book critic for the New Yorker, is regularly referred to as ‘the greatest critic of his generation’, or in similar terms, by the likes of Cynthia Ozick and Norman Rush. Given such success, a book like How Fiction Works seems long overdue. Wood has previously published two collections of critical essays, but he has styled his new work rather differently: not as criticism per se, but as a primer on novelistic form, in the tradition of E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel. The book is divided into chapters, each treating a single formal element, such as ‘narration’ or ‘detail’. Although it gives its name to only one of these chapters, in a sense detail is the unacknowledged focus of the book as a whole. Wood is a devotee of detail, whether it be the delicate touches that create our impressions of a character, the subtle balancing of omniscience and subjectivity in third-person narration (‘free indirect style’, for which he has an evident fondness), or the nuance of meaning created by the careful manipulation of word and phrase.

Saturday, 2 February 2008

Sins of the Father: P.T. Anderson’s There Will Be Blood

Paul Thomas Anderson has an abiding interest in guilt. All of his films revolve in one way or another around its characters’ struggle with their consciences, but in his latest film he has surely expanded this theme into its ultimate iteration: There Will Be Blood wallows in guilt; bathes in it; dives, sinks and ultimately drowns in it. While There Will Be Blood perhaps lacks the range of emotion experienced in Magnolia and Boogie Nights, it more than makes up for it in depth. In oil man Daniel Plainview (played with a characteristic mix of caricature and subtlety by Daniel Day-Lewis), Anderson has created a figure of masculine weakness to rival Mr. Ramsay or Charles Foster Kane: a proud, stubborn egoist with a streak of vanity, and an impenetrable emotional distance that conflicts unattractively with a powerful hunger for affection. Scarcely off-screen for the film’s 158-minute duration, Daniel reveals his ugly secrets to us with a paradoxical mixture of intimacy and ambiguity.

Thursday, 31 January 2008

Pinning down Godot

We're not beginning to... to... mean something?
Mean something! You and I, mean something!
(Brief laugh.)
Ah that's a good one!
Endgame by Samuel Beckett
While in negotiations to take the part of Pozzo in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Ralph Richardson asked the writer if Godot, the absent figure for whom Estragon and Vladimir perpetually wait, was a symbol for God. Beckett replied ‘that if by Godot I had meant God I would [have] said God, and not Godot. This seemed to disappoint him greatly.’ Beckett was exasperated throughout his life by his commentators’ attempts to attribute symbols and meanings to his plays. Despite Beckett’s (often vociferous) denials, the trend continues: the Wikipedia entry for the play includes a section devoted to different interpretations, including everything from political allegories to homosexual subtexts.

Wednesday, 9 January 2008

A Holiday from Ourselves: literature and emotional well-being

Is the purpose of fiction to offer escape into a world of fantasy, or to confront harsh realities? This is a pretty shop-worn question. The traditional Manichean assumption is that light, disposable, low entertainments offer the former; while serious, important, high art does the latter. Obviously the truth must be more complex, but how does one prove it, and what is the function of escapism or harsh reality in literature in the first place? A fascinating article by Blake Morrison in Saturday’s Guardian sheds new light on the issue. In fact, ‘The Reading Cure’ doesn’t exactly focus on this issue at all: instead, it’s about ‘bibliotherapy,’ the experimental use of books and book groups to alleviate pain and mental distress. The programme, underway in Merseyside in the north of England, has apparently met with great success, with patients reporting a reduced experience of pain and psychiatric patients showing noticeable improvement.

Wednesday, 2 January 2008

Literary Blogs and the James Wood Neurosis 3

[Click for Part One]
Today’s literary culture—especially, it seems, on the Internet—parallels the culture at large in placing a high value on the mere act of having an opinion. To have an opinion—on anything—and to be free to express it seems to symbolise for many the fundamental freedoms of a liberal society. But to be a scholar takes more than being opinionated. Anyone can form an opinion; a book was recently released that promises to teach readers how to form opinions about books they haven’t read. It is the ability to defend one’s opinion—both to define it and to justify it—that separates the critic from the reader, the professional from the Amazon customer who scrawls, ‘Great read! 4 stars!!’ The inability to approach one’s opinion analytically leaves critics with only two options: relativism (the black hole of rational thought), or internecine war. In Internet discussions one sees plenty of both. Thus critical debate is replaced with the occasional skirmish between opposing fan clubs.

Literary Blogs and the James Wood Neurosis 2

[Click for Part One]
A few months ago, the literary site The Quarterly Conversation (edited by Esposito) published an article entitled ‘The One That Got Away: Why James Wood is Wrong About Underworld,’ by Garth Risk Hallberg of The Millions. On the one hand, it must be said that this essay is another fine example of the James Wood Neurosis at work (it would be hard to imagine a more pointed title); but Hallberg has composed something quite different from the hectoring clamour of his peers. The most immediately apparent change is one of style: Hallberg writes well, entertainingly, and above all, calmly. What a relief after the antagonistic rhetoric of like-minded bloggers, to read something so polished and so reasonable. But more important is Hallberg’s choice of subject: not the flaws of Wood’s personality, but the virtues of DeLillo’s novel. Hallberg evidently has a deep familiarity with Underworld, and he communicates his enthusiasm for the work with charm and conviction.