Thursday, July 31, 2008

Fiction at Work

James Wood's How Fiction Works

The principal side-effect of reading James Wood's How Fiction Works is an almost overwhelming yearning to re-read the canon - a yearning that can only be fully allayed by taking, say, two weeks off and spending them drowned in a heady cocktail of Flaubert, James, Bellow and Tolstoy. This is great news if, for instance, you have two weeks of summer vacation coming up and have been wondering what to do with it, but for the rest of us, reading Wood's book is liable to lead to a profound sense of dissatisfaction, the direct consequence of having it demonstrated that we haven't really read the books we think we've read [1]. As Wood puts it:

"Literature makes us better noticers of life; we get to practise on life itself; which in turn makes us better readers of detail in literature; which in turn makes us better readers of life. And so on and on. You have only to teach literature to realise that most young readers are poor noticers. I know from my own old books, wantonly annotated twenty years ago when I was a student, that I routinely underlined for approval details and images and metaphors that strike me now as commonplace, while serenely missing things which now seem wonderful. We grow, as readers, and twenty-year olds are relative virgins. They have not yet read enough literature to be taught how to read it."

Touching faith in the power of fiction aside, this is a deeply depressing thought. If even Wood was missing stuff when he was twenty, what about the rest of us? For the point about Wood, the thing that makes him, in my view, one of the finest book critics writing today (aside from the lucid quality of his writing itself) is his eye for detail. In many ways, Wood is a preternaturally careful reader, and it is this that gives him, I think, that most prized of abilities for a book critic - the ability to take a book you've already read and make you see it anew.

These qualities of Wood's criticism are on ample display in How Fiction Works, which is less the coherent statement of a world-view and more a loose association of ideas about fiction, a circling of intellectual wagons around a center that remains somewhat vague. The key insight of the book comes, I think, in the last chapter (though in a way the entire book has been building up to it) and has to do with the nature of realism. Realism, according to Wood, is not a stubborn insistence on depicting the commonplace, but the pursuit of what he calls 'lifeness', an attempt to portray what is 'true', to create characters and situations that strike the reader as somehow genuine, even if they lie outside his / her own life experience. Few people, for instance, have killed an aging moneylender in an attempt to test whether God exists. But that does not make Crime and Punishment a work of speculative fiction or fantasy. Dostoevsky's novels are savagely, hauntingly real because he is able to imagine himself so firmly into the minds of his characters, and make us share so vividly in what he imagines, that his depictions of the Raskolnikovs of the world are instantly recognizable, and entirely authentic [2]. And that, to Wood, is the essence - not only of 'Realism' (a term he dislikes) but of fiction more generally. What realism requires then - and to Wood all good fiction is realistic - is not the recycling of mudane detail into a simulacrum of existence that approximates our own, but an adventure of the imagination that retains our sympathy and our sense of the genuine, even as it widens our idea of what life can be.

Nor is it simply plot or character to which Wood applies this principle, if it may be called such (though his chapter on the development of character, in particular the misleading - according to him - distinction between 'round' and 'flat' characters is fascinating). It applies equally to what Wood calls style. Wood's general idea - or at least my (admittedly unreliable) interpretation of it - is that simplicity is the product of careful artifice, that the skilled writer uses language with carefully studied precision, combining inventiveness, a wide range of registers, and an eye for the telling word or phrase to create prose that is almost transparent, that lives unobtrusively on the page but is successful in operating at multiple levels at once, so that the reader experiences the work both from the narrator or character's perspective as well as from the writer's [3].

This is an exalted view, and an exacting standard. If there is a criticism I have of How Fiction Works it is that its notion of fiction seems, if not quite old-fashioned, then at least middle-aged. Wood is scrupulously fair, but his allegiance seems to lie squarely with the nineteenth century novel. His gods are Tolstoy, James, Bellow, Flaubert and Chekhov; a good three quarters of the books he cites date from more than fifty years ago; and the more recent writers he does praise - McCarthy, Saramago (and, surprisingly, Roth) - he seems to like for the way they carry on the old traditions, rather than for any inventiveness on their part. This is not, by itself, a criticism; this is not a pantheon I would care to take issue with, and it is certainly true, as Wood every now and then bemoans, that a lot of rubbish is written in the name of the avant garde. Still, I can't help feeling that the views of fiction that Wood exposes to ridicule are those of convenient strawmen, and that a book that claims to discuss how fiction works should have more to say about the way in which fiction has evolved in the twentieth century. Wood is quick to give the credit for the development of the modern novel to the French writers of the nineteenth century - Balzac, Stendhal, Flaubert, Proust - but he's mostly silent on everything that's been done in French fiction (or in European fiction more generally) since.

Wood's defense, I suspect, would be that he's not so much trying to detail all the directions in which fiction can (and perhaps should) go, as trying to establish the central current of what fiction consists of, to which all other innovations are mere distributaries. As he puts it:

"Realism, seen broadly as truthfulness to the way things are, cannot be mere verisimilitude, cannot be mere lifelikeness, or lifesameness, but what I must call lifeness: life on the page, life bought to different life by the highest artistry. And it cannot be a genre; instead, is makes other forms of fiction seem like genres. For realism of this kind - lifeness - is the origin. It teaches everything else; it schools its own truants: it is what allows magic realism, hysterical realism, fantasy, science fiction, even thrillers, to exist."

What Wood is trying to do, then, aside from setting down his thoughts about fiction on paper, is establish the basic principles (as he sees them) upon which all fiction may be built, and against which it must be judged. This is what excuses his slightly stodgy approach to fiction, as well as his limiting himself, in his discussion, so firmly to the canon. More than anything else, though, what saves this book from becoming insufferably pedantic is the acuteness of Wood's skills as a reviewer, his ability to make you see established classics in a new light. By itself, Wood's claim that "almost all the great twentieth-century realist novels also reflect on their own making, and are full of artifice" seems a little inflated. What rescues the claim is that it comes accompanied by mini-essays like this one:

"James is really suggesting that he has not formed his character, that she is still relatively shapeless, an American emptiness, and that the novel will form her, for good and ill, that Europe will fill in her shape, and that just as these three waiting, watching men will also form her, so will we, as readers. They and we are a kind of Greek chorus, hanging on her every move. Two of the men, Lord Warburton and Ralph Touchett, will devote their lives to watching her. And what, James asks, will be the plot that poor Isabel will have written for her? How much will she herself write it, and how much will be written for her by others? And in the end, will we really know what Isabel was like, or will we have merely painted a portrait of a lady?

So the vitality of literary character has less to do with dramatic action, novelistic coherence and even plain plausibility - let alone likeability - than with a larger, philosophical or metaphysical sense, our awareness that a character's actions are profoundly important, that something profound is at stake, with the author brooding over the face of that character like God over the face of the waters. That is how readers retain in their minds a sense of the character 'Isabel Archer', even if they cannot tell you what she is exactly like. We remember her in the way we remember an obscurely significant day: something important has been enacted here." (italics in the original)

It's been eight years since I read The Portrait of a Lady, but even from that distance (or perhaps because of it) this seems both accurate and insightful. Certainly it is impossible to argue with, and once you grant that James is an intensely 'modern' novelist, who can you possibly exclude?

More than anything though, the last sentence of that extract contains the best description of the book it is taken from. Wood's real strength is not as a theorist but as a critic, and he is most sure-footed, and most engaging, when he leaves the big questions aside and focuses on detail. His new book may leave you with some additional, if somewhat obscure, insights into the enterprise of fiction, but mostly it will delight you with the sincerity of its admiration, with its marriage of an active and appreciative intelligence to a deep and instinctive love for great prose. Consider, for instance, one final extract. If this doesn't sharpen your appetite for fiction to the point where you want to drop whatever you're reading and go find your favorite Woolf, I don't know what will.

"'The day waves yellow with all its crops.' That is Woolf, from The Waves. I am consumed by this sentence, partly because I cannot quite explain why it moves me so much. I can see, hear, its beauty, its strangeness. Its music is very simple. Its words are simple. And its meaning is simple, too. Woolf is describing the sun rising and finally filling the day with its yellow fire. The sentence means something like: this is what the field of corn on a summer's day will look like when everything is blazing with sunlight - a yellow semaphore, a sea of moving colour. We know exactly and instantly what Woolf means, and we think: that could not be put any better. The secret lies in the decision to avoid the usual image of crops waving, and instead, to write the day waves: the effect is suddenly that the day itself, the very fabric and temporality of the day, seems saturated in yellow. And then that peculiar, apparently nonsensical waves yellow (how can anything wave yellow?) conveys a sense that yellowness has so intensely taken over the day itself that it has taken over our verbs, too - yellowness has conquered our agency. How do we wave? We wave yellow. That is all we can do. The sunlight is so absolute that it stuns us, makes us sluggish, robs us of will. Eight simple words evoke colour, high summer, warm lethargy, ripeness."


[1] I had to make do with a re-reading of Joyce's 'The Dead'.

[2] The example is mine, by the way. Wood uses Hamsun's Hunger to make more or less the same point, though.

[3] Did I mention that Wood gives the credit for the creation of the modern narrative to Flaubert? He writes: "Novelists should thank Flaubert the way poets thank spring: it all begins again with him."[4]

[4] See my point about the middle-aged thing? In what century do they live, these poets who thank Spring?


Anonymous said...

too much fiction fills you up with psuedo life. makes us older and wiser than our years. too much theory makes us clumsy for the real thing.

fiction should be promoted in till you are thirty then it should be " put down those books. get on with Life."

blatherina said...

totally agree with flaubert being a modernist. for me, the most important characteristic of modernism has always been that element of doubt and uncertainty of judgment/ motivations... what a relief after those heavy-handed victorians! even tolstoy was quite the judge of morality, which puts me off a little. but not chekov, he is excellent... another modern, maybe?
wood is quaint, isn't he? i doubt he would concede the brilliance of bartholomew, or barth. "lost in the funhouse" and "me and miss mandible" -- so many hearts.
btw, i find your numbered asides so amusing! a long time in academia, maybe? :)

Annamari said...

On the up side of things, there are a few great authors that had wrote their masterpieces “in the middle of the road of their life”(or something like that).

Yes, yes, I agree with all that Wood has to say about Flaubert. The charm of everyday events, the mastery of details.
Maupassant remembers Flaubert teaching him how to look at the most simple, ordinary things and notice the extraordinary in them. He said that one should write first about all these things that surround us, like the fire in the fireplace in its infinity of shapes and colors.
Also Rilke:
“[…]in the small Things that hardly anyone sees and that can so suddenly become huge, immeasurable; if you have this love for what is humble and try very simply, as someone who serves, to win the confidence of what seems poor: then everything will become easier for you, more coherent and somehow more reconciling, not in your conscious mind perhaps, which stays behind, astonished, but in your innermost awareness, awakeness, and knowledge”

I guess this is why I still try to figure out how to write an ode to my pencil (I am not kiddin’). But enough, (*#grr) I did it again, another long post on somebody else’s blog,.

km said...

If even Wood was missing stuff when he was twenty, what about the rest of us?

I don't think it's possible - even desirable - to get "everything" about a great novel at the first read. And isn't Wood really saying one's understanding of a novel changes with time and age?

Oh, and I don't mean to bring out Bellow fans bellowing out of their libraries here, but seriously, do people still read him?

//"Herzog" is a great book.

Falstaff said...

anon: Ah, but what if you're like me and neither have a life nor any interest in getting one?

blatherina: Agreed, though I think uncertainty of judgment / motivations can happen at many levels - but that's a separate post. And Wood does mention Barth, though he doesn't talk about him much. I wouldn't call him quaint, though. Just conservative.

annamari: Of course, one can also see the terrifying in the simple, ordinary things instead of the wonderful. Fear in a handful of dust, etc.

And Maupassant et al. should just have read Blake

km: True. But it's not the fact that one didn't fully appreciate them the first time that's depressing, it's the probability of finding the time to read them again.

And I think people do still read Bellow. I've only read Augie March, Herzog and Henderson (as well as the Collected Stories) but I enjoyed all of them and fully intend to read the rest, just as soon as I can find the time.

blatherina said...

eek. i meant barthelme not bartholomew. i seem to be getting my po-mos confused with the simpsons.

J. Alfred Prufrock said...

Verbiage makes you miss the wood for the trees.


Annamari said...

Rilke might of read Blake...
But Maupassant is a lot about the "chou" (cabbage, lettuce)-see “En wagon". It is a cute story, nothing extraordinary really and it all came back to me while reading Ondaatje –“he spills his maddened seed into lettuce”. Oh, those lettuces, indeed.