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.

When one speaks of the detail of language, one is really speaking of style, and Wood is a superlative reader of style. His analysis of a short passage from Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day, in which the narrator describes the ash at the end of a lit cigar, demonstrates Wood’s sensitivity both to language and to the perpetually uncertain nature of novelistic perspective:
The ash is noticed, and then Bellow comments: “It was ignored, in its beauty, by the old man. For it was beautiful. Wilhelm he ignored as well.” … Bellow here seems to imply that Tommy notices the ash, because it was beautiful, and that Tommy, also ignored by the old man, is also in some way beautiful. But the fact that Bellow tells us this is surely a concession to our implied objection: how and why would Tommy notice this ash, and notice it so well, and in these fine words? To which Bellow replies, anxiously, in effect: “Well, you might have thought Tommy incapable of such finery, but he really did notice this fact of beauty; and that it is because he is somewhat beautiful himself.”
Wood draws out his other chosen themes with a similar acuity, including fascinating short histories of common features of the novel, such as the development of modern approaches to consciousness and the Flaubertian use of visual detail. Particularly impressive are the passages in which Wood reveals the depth of his insight by finding fault with some of the faulty platitudes of fictional form. In the chapter on character, for example, he gently but decisively demolishes E.M. Forster’s distinction between ‘round’ and ‘flat’ character, which ‘tyrannises’ readers and novelists with an ‘impossible ideal.’ ‘It is subtlety that matters,’ Wood argues, ‘subtlety of analysis, inquiry, of concern, of felt pressure—and for subtlety a very small point of entry will do.’

But Wood is not the only fine close reader in the literary world; what makes his criticism truly unique is his loyalty to an unusually consistent aesthetic ideal. Although How Fiction Works is structured as a basic formalist primer, Wood uses it also as a platform to unveil his own theory on the nature of fiction. This might represent his clearest debt to critical theory. Wood often demonstrates his familiarity with academic criticism in his reviews, and in this book he goes so far as to name two theorists as his ‘favourite twentieth-century critics’: the formalist Viktor Shklovsky and poststructuralist Roland Barthes. One might say that Wood has borrowed from theorists like these the ‘approach-based’ approach to criticism; but the particular approach that he uses is unlike any to have appeared in academia in the last fifty years. ‘We read fiction,’ he declares, ‘because it pleases us, moves us, is beautiful, and so on—because it is alive and we are alive.’

For many, however, this unwavering critical stance makes Wood a controversial figure. Wyatt Mason of Harper’s Magazine has accused Wood of condemning celebrity, ‘critic-proof’ writers—the likes of John Updike, Toni Morrison and Don Delillo—in order to promote his own artistic agenda. For Wood’s detractors, his forthright dedication to his personal aesthetic exceeds the critic’s role to judge from a neutral position. He is frequently caricatured as a doctrinaire throwback to the 19th-Century: a well-known article in the journal n+1 called his style ‘the silhouette of an intellectual world that was once rumored to exist.’

Most accusations of elitism or dogmatism made against Wood are based on very weak readings of his work. Laura Miller, literary editor for, wrote an article on Wood some years ago that hit all the customary bases: that he uses literature as a surrogate for religion, that he is too serious, that he is too English, that he wants everyone to write like Chekhov, and so on. Slurs like these have taken the aspect of religious mantras: whether they accurately describe anyone who really exists is of secondary importance to the feeling of comfort they provide to the writer. Nevertheless, Wood’s standards often seem unreasonably strict. Wood is a tireless promoter of literary realism, and his disfavor for diversions that fail to meet his realist requirements—either by being unacceptably unliterary, like the thrillers of Cormac McCarthy, or by being improperly avant-garde, like the postmodern absurdism of Thomas Pynchon—can appear, at times, stubbornly uncompromising, as if he is backing himself further and further into the narrowing cul-de-sac of so-called ‘literary fiction’.

Wood is an analytical thinker at heart, and therefore a theorist by inclination. As the title indicates, he intends his book not merely to be a compilation of observations about fiction, but as an enquiry into fiction’s fundamental nature. ‘If the book has a larger argument,’ he writes in the introduction, ‘it is that fiction is both artifice and verisimilitude, and that there is nothing difficult in holding together these two possibilities.’ To say that fiction is artifice will cause no controversy, and at its best Wood’s book serves as an ingenious examination of some of the methods by which such artifice is created; but Wood’s latter claim, that fiction is rooted in verisimilitude, is considerably more divisive, and it is an argument to which Wood returns again and again throughout the book, to worry at its edges.

The place of realism in fiction has always been an important part of Wood’s criticism. In a review of Toni Morrison’s Paradise, published in 1997, Wood claimed that, ‘since fiction is itself a kind of magic, the novel should not be magical.’ In other words, because to read a novel is an act of belief, a novel must not include anything which is unbelievable. The assurance of this remarkable assertion masks its incoherence: how could anyone today enjoy Homer or Shakespeare in any but the most abstract of terms? How could Wood himself explain the aesthetic pleasure he evidently derives from the Bible? Certainly there is no space in an aesthetic like this for Kafka or Beckett, both of whose work Wood endorses in How Fiction Works.

In the intervening decade, Wood’s defense of realism has grown considerable nuance, and Wood slowly develops it as he works his way through each chapter. He takes on a number of ‘anti-realists’ in the course of the book, culminating in the final chapter, entitled ‘Truth, Convention, Realism’, in which he mounts a direct assault on the theory of Roland Barthes. The crux of the debate lies in the ability of literary realism to achieve its purpose. For Barthes and his followers, fiction can never succeed in representing reality, and a realist who makes the attempt will merely produce a subjective illusion that naively reinforces bourgeois values. Rather than signifying reality, realism, for Barthes, signifies the intention to resemble reality, and results in nothing but a naïve illusion.

Wood’s response to this argument is subtle. While it is clear from Wood’s earlier essays that he had a fairly orthodox understanding of the word ‘realism’, in recent years he has developed a decidedly idiosyncratic definition, one which permits him to assimilate a greater variety of fiction into the category of ‘realism’ than seems intuitively plausible. Even the most unrealistic works of fiction, Wood claims, owe a debt to realism, because the emotional ‘truth’ of any story—what Wood refers to as ‘lifeness’—results from its likeness, literal or metaphorical, to real life.
Once we throw the term ‘realism’ overboard, we can account for the ways in which, say, Kafka’s Metamorphosis and Hamsun’s Hunger and Beckett’s Endgame are not representations of likely or typical human activity, but are nevertheless harrowingly truthful texts. This, we say to ourselves, is what it would feel like to be outcast from one’s family, like an insect (Kafka), or a young madman (Hamsun), or an aged parent kept in a bin and fed pap (Beckett).
It is here that Wood’s real stake in this debate emerges. He is attracted to Barthes’ formalism, but whereas Barthes thought of style as an end in itself (he called literature ‘the adventure of language’), Wood sees ‘truth’—emotional truth, one might say—as the goal of fiction, and style as the means. With this quality he calls ‘lifeness’, Wood founds a theoretical basis for evaluating the content of fiction in emotional terms.

But the argument by which Wood relates this emotive quality to realism is little more than a sleight of hand. ‘Lifeness’, just like ‘realism’ and ‘how things are’, still requires that fiction refer to reality, in other words that it be like reality. The greatest flaw in this argument is its obvious partisanship: ‘Realism of this kind—lifeness—is the origin,’ Wood claims. ‘It teaches everyone else; it schools its own truants: it is what allows magical realism, hysterical realism, fantasy, science fiction, even thrillers, to exist.’ Wood provides no explanation, apart perhaps from the desire for variety, for an author to choose a metaphorical approach to the representation of ‘life’, like Kafka, Beckett and Hamsun, rather than approaching it literally, like James, Flaubert and Chekhov. More alarmingly, perhaps, it disconnects the novel from the entire history of storytelling that preceded it: why must the novel be realistic when Homer, the Bible, and Shakespeare are not?

Wood claims that the falsity Barthes sees in realist fiction is present only in derivative novels made up of dead conventions. ‘Convention itself,’ he says, ‘like metaphor itself, is not dead; but it is always dying. So, the artist is always trying to outwit it. But in outwitting it, the artist is always establishing another dying convention.’
That is why the complaint that realism is no more than a grammar or set of rules that obscures life is generally a better description of le Carré or P.D. James than it is of Flaubert of Isherwood: when a style decomposes, flattens itself down into a genre, then indeed it does become a set of mannerisms and often pretty lifeless techniques... And of course, the most economically privileged genre of this kind of largely lifeless ‘realism’ is commercial cinema, through which most people nowadays receive their idea of what constitutes a ‘realistic’ narrative.
But in claiming sympathy with Barthes’ position, Wood has inadvertently transformed it: Barthes argued that realist authors were at fault for falsely claiming to be able to represent reality, but Wood is indicting thriller writers for failing, unlike realists, to represent reality well enough. The reference to commercial cinema is symptomatic of Wood’s failure to perceive the depth of his disagreement with the anti-realists. It is very unlikely that the audience to the average Hollywood movie would describe the experience as particularly realistic; to the contrary, if one were to point out a cliché or a plot hole the likely response would be that ‘it’s just a movie.’ In other words, the audience recognizes the film’s lack of verisimilitude, even as they derive emotional pleasure from it.

For Wood, ‘literary fiction’ is the capacious storehouse, ‘the origin’, from which writers of genre fiction pilfer all their stories’ vitality; but a number of prominent recent novels have demonstrated that the exchange can run both ways. Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (which Wood reviewed favorably in The New Republic) draws a beautiful meditation on the human condition from the story of a group of clones bred to be organ donors. This story is not only science fiction, it is cliché science fiction: The Island, an idiotic action blockbuster directed by idiotic action director Michael Bay (and released in the same year as Ishiguro’s book), had the exact same premise. The two works are not, of course, of equal value, but there is nothing inherently idiotic in the premise of The Island, only in its execution. In other words, Ishiguro did not take a meaningless story and invest it with emotion; he took a situation already rich with significance and revealed its most affective possibilities.

Wood’s rejection of genre fiction is closely tied to his dismissal of what he calls ‘the essential juvenility of plot.’ The reader will search in vain for a chapter on plot in How Fiction Works, and Wood barely discusses the matter at all (in an interview he has called this his ‘deliberate extravagance’). It is a shame, considering Wood’s perspicacity in the case of other faulty truisms of narrative, such as the ‘round’ and ‘flat’ character, to see him thoughtlessly embrace the equally specious notion that there is a device called a ‘plot’ which novelists improve their work by deleting. But plot is no more than the pattern of a story’s events, and it is no less important in literary fiction than it is in a thriller. In To the Lighthouse, for example, Virginia Woolf crafts passages of great emotional life, but it is the structuring irony of the trip to the lighthouse—prohibited in the first part and imposed, years later, in the last—which forms the foundation of the book’s emotional power.

It is perhaps his impatience with plot that led to the failure of Wood’s novel, The Book Against God. The story, buoyed by Wood’s characteristically fine writing, pulses intermittently with great sparks of life (one can picture his delight at describing a coffee maker as ‘the catarrhal machine’), and occasionally rises to emotional peaks of great poignancy, particularly in the beautiful final chapters. In the penultimate chapter, the protagonist, Thomas Bunting, spends the evening with his estranged wife as part of his ‘marital probation’; after dinner she plays a record, without explaining her choice. For some time Tom listens carefully to the music, but his attention is gradually drawn to the barely audible sound of the pianist breathing in the background.
Yet there was another sound, not musical. Something like a man sniffing. It was the pianist breathing!—heavy, almost impatient, as if he were wrestling with the music to secure its great medial serenity. The pianist was breathing quite hard through his nose as he wrestled with this sweet sound. It was the sound of hard work, but it was also the sound of existence itself—a man’s ordinary breath, the give and take of the organism, our colourless wind of survival, the zephyr of it all.
Tom is captivated to the point of tears. ‘It’s the pianist breathing,’ he says. ‘That’s what you wanted me to hear.’ But he is wrong: she had assumed he would recognize the piece of music that she had played on the night they first met, and his error ruins the evening. This is a great moment, and in a short story it would have worked magnificently; but a novel cannot run on beautiful passages alone. Every moment cannot be a climax, and without a structuring device like Woolf’s Lighthouse, the intermediary sequences of Wood’s novel lack a sense of momentum, and become dull and essayistic. The absence of a discussion of plot in How Fiction Works does not seriously mar the quality of Wood’s observations. Indeed, he frequently gives special attention to unacknowledged functions of plot, such as when characters are revealed through the evidence of their actions. But in a book about the craft of fiction it is a costly extravagance, an omission that makes an unfulfilled promise of the title.

It should be fair to say at this point that Wood’s theory of the novel is not without its limitations. His partisanship for realism and his distaste for what he considers ‘plot-driven’ narratives seriously reduce his vision of the possibilities of fiction. Because of this, he will almost certainly never be the kind of critic who helps change the face of literature, in the way that Edmund Wilson did by defending Joyce and Hemingway. But there is more than one kind of critic, and Wood’s kind, never without value, is perhaps particularly vital to us today. We live in an iconoclastic age, in which canons have lost their authority and each new book is proclaimed the next big thing. Every new writer seems to want to be the next James Joyce, to ‘push the boundaries of fiction,’ as if this, following formalists like Barthes, were an end in itself. Heidi Julavits of The Believer spoke for these writers when she chastised critics like Wood for disparaging certain books as ‘overly ambitious’—as if the presence of ambition, of whatever kind, should be enough to earn its author praise.

Wood does not push fiction’s boundaries: he searches instead for its gravitational center. He is, in effect, not so much a practical critic as he is a practical critical theorist, perhaps the last of his kind. With his eye for form he distinguishes great technical achievement from the stylistic chaos of the ‘overly ambitious’, and the advice he gives in this book will no doubt prove of great value to budding writers. The historian in him continually returns to find more pleasure and more depth in great works of the past, preserving our grasp on a tradition of great beauty in fiction. But more fundamentally, with his appeal to the concept of ‘lifeness’ Wood draws us closer to an understanding of the nature of that beauty: that mysterious quality, at once indefinable and unmistakable, which allows a great work of fiction to glow with the same emotional intensity as the most profound of lived experience. It may be that Wood has been too narrow in his definition of this quality, but we should be grateful that he is there to defend its necessity.

If Wood can appear to us sometimes as an overbearing teacher, it is only because he makes us work hard, as writers and as readers. In a culture that mollifies us always with the promise of short cuts and easy answers, he reminds us of the effort and genius that go into producing fiction of lasting quality. Whatever great work of the future the next Edmund Wilson unveils to the public, it will likely bear little resemblance to literary realism. But to outlast its publicity, it will have to match the greatest of realist fiction in technique and emotional resonance. It must still come alive, in other words, rather than merely excite us, like so much ambitious new fiction, with the glamour of its newness. Wood reminds us that to tell a story that stirs and delights, to explore the beauty that derives from the life of fiction, is a noble ambition in its own right.

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