DISCUSSED IN THIS ESSAY:
The Fun Stuff by James Wood. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 352pp., $27.00.
James Wood’s How Fiction Works was clearly enough Wood’s attempt to directly articulate his aesthetic philosophy, his “poetics” of fiction. Although the book is presented as a kind of primer on reading fiction with more critical acuity for the general reader, the aesthetic philosophy Wood advances not so subtly also suggests that it is the proper way of distinguishing between worthwhile fiction and fiction that can’t stand up to scrutiny in the first place because it simply doesn’t fit the “correct” definition of fiction. While How Fiction Works is a relatively short book, Wood’s ambition is large: to authoritatively delineate the form fiction should take if it wants to be true to its literary-historical roots and to be taken seriously as literature.
For Wood, fiction accomplishes these twin tasks by continuing to aspire to realism, but a realism that goes beneath the surface to depict lived experience as it is filtered through human consciousness. This sort of psychological realism is the fulfillment of fiction’s highest purpose for Wood, since it gives us access to “Mind” as no other art form can do, and since Wood believes having such access is the greatest reward of the reading experience. Access to mind is accomplished through what Wood calls “free indirect style” (although this technique has been called by other names throughout modern literary history, most notably perhaps by Henry James as the “central consciousness” strategy), and the first part of How Fiction Works is taken up with an exegesis of the free indirect style as essentially the default mode of narration for any “serious” writer of fiction. Wood’s analysis of how the free indirect style works is perfectly sound, but his argument for its centrality is made possible by ignoring the varied effects that can be created by first-person narration (reducing the possibilities it raises to the question of reliability vs. unreliability) and by declaring that narrative omniscience, the third-person alternative to the free indirect style, is “almost impossible.” (This after beginning by reminding us that, after all, “we’re stuck with third- and first-person narration.”)
Perhaps Wood’s real skill, at least in this book, is in the way in which he convinces his readers to overlook the fact that all of these assertions are debatable, some of them quite obviously so. Does a novel, an artful contrivance of language, really give us access to “Mind”? Really? Isn’t this just an illusion created by the writer’s art, which in turn is just one of the goals literary art might serve? Isn’t the reliability or unreliability of a first-person narrator just the beginning point in a consideration of the purposes to which first-person narrative might contribute, purposes both formal and stylistic? The notion that omniscience is impossible is patently untrue, as even a moment’s reflection reveals (Wood’s “almost” perhaps meant to forestall such reflection so that we might grant him his debating point). Wood can make this assertion only because he willfully seems to confuse “omniscient” with “impersonal,” assuming that the writer who would make his narrator “all-knowing” merely wants to establish some sort of detached neutrality. Indeed, Wood proclaims that “authorial style” itself makes omniscience unobtainable, as “style tends to draw our attention towards the writer, towards the artifice of the writer’s construction, and so towards the writer’s own impress.” But of course the very “artifice” that is at the base of literary creation means writers can do whatever they want with their words, including maintaining the illusion they are “going inside” the minds of their characters but also, if they wish, conveying the impression their narrators remain “outside” those characters, refusing to accept that fiction is constrained by the needs of a “character” at all and affirming that the artifice goes all the way down.
We’re not really “stuck with third- and first-person narrators” of the conventional kind, but certainly James Wood is quite content with these alternatives, especially since he can so quickly establish the limitations of all but the free indirect method for fulfilling fiction’s highest aspirations. If we were to add to Wood’s brief on behalf of this narrative strategy in How Fiction Works his historical analysis in The Irresponsible Self that privileges a certain kind of moral-centered “comedy” (which he also more accurately describes as “a kind of tragicomic stoicism”), we can see that Wood’s critical project works to first isolate and then elevate a particular kind of modern novel, loosely the comedy of manners, at which English writers have proven especially adept (although Wood also extends his attention to certain European writers who also favor psychological depth and “tragicomic stoicism”). The comedy of manners has certainly played an important part in the development of fiction (and many very good writers have participated in the genre), but admirers of James Wood’s book reviews should realize that the judgments he makes as a reviewer are rooted in his preference for this sort of fiction and should remember he has devoted most of two books to the attempt to critically justify the view that it represents not just a significant achievement in the art of the novel but is in fact the settled form in which that art can be realized, that the literary history of the novel in effect comes to an end with its ascension.
Not every work Wood praises as a reviewer is necessarily a comedy of manners, as his newest collection of reviews, The Fun Stuff, shows, but almost all of them are ultimately found to be “realistic” in the way they reveal “Mind” at work and/or they can be taken as “comic” in the sense Wood explicates in The Irresponsible Self. (Because this concept of comedy is essentially a religious one—it is a “comedy of forgiveness,” Wood tells us—a novel like Marilyn Robinson’s Gilead is an especially direct illustration of the latter.) What might seem to be an exception to Wood’s predominating terms of analysis, a work such as Lydia Davis’s Collected Stories, (which Wood praises highly), can turn out to be perfectly compatible with them, as long as you look at the work in the right way. Davis’s enigmatic, experimental stories would not suggest themselves as something that would appeal to James Wood, since he is known for prominently dismissing experimental, innovative, or reputedly postmodern fiction, often harshly (“hysterical realism” being perhaps the most famous coinage he has devised for dispatching such fiction to the fringes of respectable critical discourse), but it turns out you can really ignore the alternative aesthetic purposes enigma and ellipsis might be serving in Davis’s fiction and reduce her stories to a collective autobiographical expression, the soliloquies of a “composite” narrator that, unsurprisingly, allows us access to that narrator’s inner life:
In more conventional fiction . . . the reader is allowed to overhear the thoughts of other people. In Davis’s soliloquizing work, a narrator is often overhearing herself, and we are then allowed to hear their painful and funny self-overhearing.
What makes Davis’s fiction “unconventional” is the complexity with which it gives us access to Mind, encompassing secondary and tertiary levels of “overhearing.” We witness “a mind spinning like a fly,” thus, presumably, justifying the discontinuities and extreme compression all readers will most immediately encounter in Davis’s stories. It is of course the way these strategies challenge the established conception of “story” that is really unconventional in her stories, but Wood manages to discount what is truly unusual in Lydia Davis’s work to extract the usual sort of value he wants to find in fiction. In fairness to Wood, Davis’s stories are first-person narratives (presumably reliable), so the analysis here is not one that buttresses the free indirect style, nor does Wood’s review of Norman Rush’s Mortals, which similarly lauds Rush’s use of a first-person narrator to achieve psychological complexity. But in each case the end of the analysis is to draw out the psychological complexity, the means by which the writer produces it praised to the extent it makes the revelation of psychological depth visible. When Wood says that some novels allow us to experience “the thoughts of other people,” he betrays his ultimate assumption that fiction is valuable because it helps us understand human behavior at its source in mental processes, an accomplishment that is essentially a moral one because to understand is to “forgive” the weaknesses we all share. But fiction does not present us with either “people” or “thoughts.” It presents us with words artfully disposed to invoke the illusion of such things as people and their thoughts.
I do not think this is a trivial distinction. It seems to me a fundamental difference between regarding works of literature as sources of wisdom or special insight (which surely most novelists do not manifest to any greater degree than anyone else), as aids to understanding, and regarding it as the use of language to create literary art. Certainly there is room for disagreement about what is considered the “proper” purpose of literature. Some readers (and some critics) want “content” from the fiction or poetry they read, indeed want works of literature to “say something” about human experience depicted either through the behavior of individual characters or through their interactions with social and cultural forces. It is also true that such “saying” can be direct or indirect, as James Wood probably believes is the case in those works he praises for their psychological acuity. Such fiction in a sense unwittingly, through the formal and stylistic choices the author has made, reveals the operations of Mind. In remaining faithful to the perceptions and the cast of thought projected on the characters they have created, writers of fiction use the resources of fiction in a way that illuminates the nature of consciousness. In either case, however, these readers and critics are turning to fiction for what it is “about,” although not necessarily in the most reductive sense in which this means preoccupation with “the story.” Most of the novels James Wood approves most enthusiastically, in fact, are notably short on plot, which only gets in the way of providing depth in characterization.
Wood no doubt would also say that in focusing our attention on this quality of fiction he is not ignoring the “art” it also exhibits. The burden of analysis in most of his reviews, he might say, is on patiently showing how the writer’s aesthetic devices make the particular sort of character depth found in the work possible. Indeed, Wood has been called the “greatest living critic” precisely because of his reputed ability to engage in this kind of close and patient reading. But while it is true that Wood appeals to the particulars of the text more than most mainstream reviewers (although in my opinion, some of his reviews indulge more in plot summary than close analysis), his reading do not usually attempt to give a full account of the text’s aesthetic features, preferring to concentrate on those that contribute to the achievement of psychological realism. Even when he is presumably not constrained by the conventions of the periodical book review, as in his essay on Richard Yates, Wood gives a minimum of detailed textual analysis, reverting instead to a great deal of biographical framing, plot summary, and generalized observation about Yates’s realism. Wood does offer some close reading of the tangible features of Revolutionary Road:
Yates’s novel is both traditional and radical. Its traditionalism can be felt in the way it so delightedly flourishes the artisanal virtues of structure and finish. The prose is nicely alert and poised. . . . The book’s form is a solid delight of symmetry and repetition . . .
These are potentially interesting insights into the formal and stylistic attributes of Revolutionary Road, but while Wood offers a couple of brief illustrations to substantiate such claims, they don’t go very far in elucidating the aesthetic character of the novel. We are left with vague formulations (“delightedly flourishes the artisanal virtues”) and subjective judgment (nicely alert and poised”) in place of fuller and more rigorous description. Wood follows up these remarks with a paragraph asserting that Revolutionary Road “is essentially a novel all about artifice, and thus about its own artifice.” The first part of this statement is perhaps obvious enough that it does not require much additional support. The second part is not (it certainly doesn’t immediately follow upon the first) and, while it is a provocative comment that could substantively affect our response to the novel if true, Wood does not at all establish it is true except at the most superficial level: “Frank’s theatricality is a form of fiction making, after all.” Finally, Wood’s essay does almost nothing to validate the notion that Revolutionary Road is both traditional and radical, which is a shame, because it might, in fact, be valid.
In an essay on Edmund Wilson, Wood finds that Wilson’s predispositions as a critic “frequently lead him away from an aesthetic account of a work toward biographical speculation and cultural instruction.” This is an accurate enough assessment of Wilson’s limitations (although Axel’s Castle remains one of the best contemporaneous books on modernism, precisely because Wilson was sensitive to its aesthetic challenges and was able to trace their roots in 19th century symbolism), but while Wood is usually more focused on aesthetic elements than Wilson was, surely his description of Wilson’s critical predilections apply to Wood himself. If Wood’s reviews of new books do not often introduce biographical information, among the essays included in The Fun Stuff, those on Yates, George Orwell, V.S. Naipaul, and Thomas Hardy lean heavily on biographical exposition (as does the essay on Wilson), as if when the writer’s work becomes historical most of what needs to be said concerns the writer’s life instead (or that now the work can be more correctly explicated in the context of the life). In essays like these, Wood assumes more the role of literary historian than a purveyor of “close textual reading,” the conclusion Wood reaches about Wilson. Wood is less directly concerned with “cultural instruction” than Wilson indeed arguably was (at least implicitly), but it is nevertheless more accurate to call Wood a moral critical than a formalist interested in close reading for its own sake. For Wood, the effort to penetrate the veil of consciousness and behold the mind at work is a moral one, for both writer and reader.
For the writer, the emphasis on the inner life of characters is itself an implicitly moral act, a least when the writer is able to fully and successfully exploit the inherent capacity of fiction to reveal the inner life. It is moral because, as Wood says of Jane Austen’s fiction, such an act allows characters and their behavior to be “gradually comprehended and finally forgiven” (“Comedy and the Irresponsible Self”). It is the writer’s success in exploiting this capacity that constitutes the “art” of the work, but the art is in the service of the moral goal. (Perhaps Wood might retort that the two cannot be so easily separated.) For the reader, the novelist’s skill in achieving this sort of compelling psychological realism allows us to inhabit a perspective other than our own, to become aware of “the thoughts of other people.” If Wood doesn’t exactly attribute a didactic moral purpose to fiction, he certainly does suggest throughout his reviews and critical essays, as well as in How Fiction Works, that the moral effects of our encounter with other “minds” are what make fiction valuable to us a form or genre of writing. And if Wood doesn’t much dwell on the “cultural” issues or implications of the fiction he considers, his selection of works or writers to assess and the consistent return to his core concerns related to narrative strategy and the portrayal of character signal a clear desire to “instruct” readers how to read fiction for what it most importantly has to offer.
This is not to claim that Wood never engages in more wide-ranging aesthetic analysis, nor that his aesthetic judgments are always suspect because of his partisan motives. His ability to evaluate aesthetic worth perceptively is perhaps most conspicuously on display when he renders an all-out negative judgment, as in his review of Paul Auster’s Invisible. Wood is unsparing in his criticisms of Auster’s skills as a stylist, maintaining that Auster “does nothing with cliche except use it,” but even Auster’s staunchest defenders could hardly claim that vivid writing is one of his strengths. Likewise, Wood incisively critiques Auster’s awkward status somewhere between realist and postmodernist:
One reads Auster’s novels very fast, because they are lucidly written, because the grammar of the prose is the grammar of the most familiar realism. . . . There are no semantic obstacles, lexical difficulties, or syntactical challenges. The books fairly hum along. But Auster is not a realist writer, of course. Or rather, his local narrative procedures are indeed uninterestingly realist, while his larger narrative games are anti-realist or surrealist, which is a fancy way of saying his sentences and paragraphs are quite conventional, and obey the laws of physics and chemistry, and his larger plots are almost always ridiculous.
To call the plots “ridiculous” rather than use some other, less obviously derogatory term to describe their “surrealism” (“outlandish”) is perhaps excessive, but again it is hard to cavil with Wood’s conclusion that “what is problematic is the gravity and emotional logic that Auster seems to want to extract from the ‘realist’ side of his stories, making it harder to credit the postmodern disassembly” Auster also applies to his narratives.
Yet it has always seemed to me that it is precisely the odd disjunction between Auster’s conventional, even trite, mode of narration and the weird situations and plot turns to be found in the narratives that makes Auster’s best fiction both distinctive and compelling. Predictably enough, Wood has very little sympathy for such a phenomenon, since no way of accounting for the effect Auster’s fiction has on receptive readers will turn Auster into a psychological realist. But Wood’s problem with Auster, his legitimate analysis of the writer’s shortcomings notwithstanding, seems to me a problem he has with many American writers, who emerge from a literary history much different from that which produced the English comedy of manners or the European/Dostoyevskian psychological novel. Wood seems to know little about this history, or at least gives no indication he would be inclined to acknowledge the alternative literary values the writers in this tradition embody. He concentrates his appraisal of Auster’s fiction on the conflict between Auster’s realist strategies and his postmodern inclinations, but if Auster is a postmodernist, he is one of the sort anticipated by writers such as Hawthorne and Melville, writers of “romance” whose plots could be described as at least as “ridiculous” as Auster’s and many of whose works (especially Hawthorne’s) could be interpreted as proto-metafictions.
Hawthorne and Melville were emphatically not psychological realists. (The power of the portrayal of Ahab in Moby-Dick comes from the fact we do not know what’s going on “inside his head”; we have only Ishmael’s reports of his behavior to go on). But even the American realists of the late 19th century and early 20th centuries (Henry James being a significant exception) were not realists of the kind valorized by James Wood. Their work still relies heavily on plot, emphasizes setting in its external, palpable details, and remains “outside” the characters it portrays, following their actions but rarely restricting the narrative to what these characters themselves perceive. This mode of realism continues well into the 20th century in modern naturalists such as Steinbeck and Richard Wright. It doesn’t seem likely Hemingway would rank high in Wood’s pantheon, nor the later neorealists and minimalists influenced by Hemingway. Flannery O’Connor’s bleak allegories contain little in the way of either psychological subtlety (again, the creepiness of many of her characters arises from our lack of access to their “thinking”) or of the comedy of forgiveness. One imagines that Wood’s critique of Auster (along with earlier critiques of Don DeLillo and David Foster Wallace) is a critical stand-in for a broader critique of postmodernism itself, but since Wood has not directly written about any of the older, foundational postmodernists, we can only infer that the problems he has with these more currently prominent writers are the same sort of problems he would have with William Gass, John Barth, Robert Coover, Gilbert Sorrentino, etc. That Wood rarely if ever even mentions such writers and their work strongly suggests he doesn’t want to remind his readers of their challenge to his unequivocal declarations on behalf of psychological realism and the free indirect style, would rather not engage in the sustained analysis and argument it would take to make the case that American postmodern fiction as exemplified by these writers, as well as the literary tradition from which they emerge, should not be included as genuine examples of “how fiction works” as well.
Readers less interested in American fiction probably find Wood’s frequent reviews of European fiction most satisfying, as well as a welcome exception to the general neglect of translation in the mainstream book-reviewing media, and indeed Wood may be at his best when reviewing such work (as well as British fiction). In The Fun Stuff, his reviews of Laszlo Krasznahorkai and Ismail Kadare, as well as the reviews of Kazuo Ishiguro and Alan Hollinghurst, perform the very useful service the best reviews can offer, which is to, on the one hand, convince us that a writer with whom we are unfamiliar is one we need to read, or, on the other, suggest to us through a judicious reading that our doubts about such a writer seem well-founded. In these reviews, that Wood privileges a particular mode or strategy matters less because the writers considered clearly do work in that mode and they are (or seem) especially accomplished at advancing its potential. If Wood made less grand claims on behalf of realism centered in subjective states of consciousness, acknowledging that it is one mode among others the writer of fiction might choose (and if others made less grand claims about Wood as the greatest critic of our time), I, for one, would likely find myself less resistant to his critical authority and more likely simply to appreciate his strengths as a reader of a certain kind of psychologically inflected fiction.
The two finest essays in The Fun Stuff are the first and the last, and neither is about literature. Readers might find both somewhat surprising, at odds with Wood’s image as a rather stuffy defender of elite cultural values. In the title essay, Wood celebrates Keith Moon (and implicitly the music of the Who). Not only might it seem curious that James Wood admires a rock ‘n roll drummer (although he tells us in the essay that he was himself an aspiring drummer), but it seems even more unlikely that he would admire such a wild, seemingly undisciplined drummer as Keith Moon. However, Wood does a very good job of showing why Moon’s apparent lack of discipline was really just the most visible manifestation of considerable, if unorthodox, skill. It is certainly refreshing to find Wood celebrating the unorthodox, even if it is in a musician rather than a writer, but his enthusiasm for Keith Moon’s unconventional talent is palpably sincere and in fact rather moving. The book’s concluding essay, “Packing My Father-In-Law’s Library,” ultimately takes a contrarian view of the urge to accumulate books and of the notion that a personal library is a meaningful clue to its possessor’s life and character. Wood helps to move his late father-in-law’s books and concludes that “the more time I spent with my father-in-law’s books, the more profoundly they seemed not to be revealing but hiding him, like some word-wreathed, untranslatable mausoleum.” Wood ultimately confronts the “rather stupid materiality” of these left-behind books, making them simply burdens on those forced to dispose of them, and he resolves “not to leave behind such burdens for my children after my death.”
Neither the generosity toward the unconventional nor the iconoclasm displayed in these two essays are much in evidence in Wood’s writing on literature, unfortunately. Paradoxically, they make reading The Fun Stuff more rewarding, but also cast his limitations as a literary critic in a harsher light.
Daniel Green is a critic and writer whose work has appeared in a variety of publications and who maintains the literary weblog, The Reading Experience.
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