Thursday, October 02, 2008

James Wood's "How Fiction Works"

Struggle, dear readers and writers, to outwit that inevitable aging that puts novelist life always on the brink of mere convention. So concludes James Wood, a very excellent critic, after 247 raptly meandering pages through the passionate history of the novel (as we know it). So sure is he that it's near impossible to quibble with his close-reads and profound analyses: if we disagree with his perspective, it is only because he has succeeded in waking up our own literary taste buds. For lack of a better word, or perhaps because it is the best word: bam!

Though he constantly contradicts himself--either directly (as he explains why round characters are critical, but why flat ones can also be necessary) or indirectly (he frequently makes Roland Barthes play devil's advocate)--Wood holds several things in high esteem. Profound noticers trump the lengthy abstractions of David Foster Wallace, who uses the "free-indirect style" (when a third-person voice is influenced by the character it is observing) to override character. He also swoons for Gaerard Manley Hopkins's "thisness," Christopher Isherwood's "recording camera" of a pen, and Flaubert's ability to notice and compress the time signatures of an entire town.

What is more important, however, is that Wood holds nothing in low esteem (or at least does not specify the genre works that he avoids): he believes a novel fails "not when the characters are not vivid or deep enough, but when the novel in question has failed to teach us how to adapt to its conventions, has failed to manage a specific hunger for its own characters, its own reality level." No surprise, then, that his strongest section is "Detail" ("While we should try to be the kind of writer on whom nothing is lost, we have no need to be the kind of writer on whom everything is found"), while his blandest section psychoanalyses: "Truth, Convention, Realism," begins by quoting Rick Moody and Patrick Giles at length, then dismisses them as "more or less nonsense." (How Fiction Works helps to draw attention to the preciseness of imprecise words, even those that fall into cliche--because doesn't even cliche tell us something?)

Then again, this is bound to happen when one sets out with the admirable, yet down-to-earth goal of asking a critic's questions and offering a writer's answers. Wood is bound to his source materials, for every time he gets hung up arguing the merits of verisimilitude and artifice, someone like Virginia Woolfe will ask "Why should a real chair be better than an imaginary elephant?" In fact, Wood is clearest when anchored to detail: his favorite metaphor is the one which "estranges and then instantly connects, and in doing the latter so well, hides the former. The result is a tiny shock of surprise, followed by a feeling of inevitability."

Would that I could give How Fiction Works as close a reading as Wood provides for his heroes, but if there's anything this book demonstrates, it's the lack of comparative experience I have to Mr. New Yorker. Allow George Eliot, then, to carry us out with a beautiful reason for fiction and my personally renewed mission: "Art is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot." Onwards, then, and upwards.

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