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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

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JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

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Thursday, March 27, 2008

Aspects of Wood’s How Fiction Works

Posted by Rohan Maitzen on 03/27/08 at 07:27 AM

Cross-posted from Novel Readings.  Thank you to the regular Valve folks for the invitation to do some guest posting!

The dust jacket describes How Fiction Works as Wood’s “first full-length book of criticism.” Anyone led by this blurb to expect sustained analysis supported by extensive research and illustration will be disappointed, as in fact How Fiction Works turns out to be essentially a ‘commonplace book,’ a collection of critical observations and insights of varying degrees of originality and sophistication, developed with varying degrees of care and detail. Wood acknowledges having set deliberate limits on his project, likening it in his introduction to Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, proposing to offer practical “writer’s anwers” to “a critic’s questions,” and admitting (with no tone of apology) that he used only “the books at hand in [his] study.” To some extent I agree with other reviewers who consider it only fair to evaluate the book Wood wrote, rather than regretting he didn’t write another one. Yet even within the parameters Wood sets, I think there are grounds for wishing he, with his exceptional gifts and qualifications as both reader and critic, had not sold himself (or us) short in fulfilling them. Further, beginning with the invocation of Forster but going well beyond it, the book has pretensions to grandeur: for instance, also in his introduction Wood remarks that Barthes and Shklovsky “come to conclusions about the novel that seem to me interesting but wrong-headed, and this book conducts a sustained argument with them” (2). With gestures such as this, Wood claims an elevated stature for his critical contribution that is undermined by its casual construction and over-confident approach to scholarship. Though How Fiction Works provides many further proofs of Wood’s critical gifts and considerable erudition, I think it also proves that even the best practical critic flounders when working only with what he has already to hand or in mind.

Right off the bat I was irritated by the book’s structure. Wood has said that he felt liberated by using the numbered “paragraphs” or sections, but allowing yourself to skip from thought to thought in this way means letting yourself off the hook too often. One effect of crafting longer pieces as sustained wholes is that in working out the overall movement of your ideas and building in appropriately specific transitions, you confront both the logic and the further implications of your claims: the form actually pressures you to think better. Numbered bits, however, relieve that pressure: you can just stop with one topic and start the next, and as long as they are more or less related, you can claim to be producing a unified whole, even if you are only papering over gaps. In How Fiction Works, the breaks often seem unnecessary: a new number sets off what is really just the next sentence in the idea already unfolding. Most of the time, however, they are substitutes for careful transitions. They allow a certain stream-of-consciousness effect to creep in: that last bit reminds me of this exception to a general principle, or of a writer who also does that, or of another favourite excerpt, or of a time I went to a concert with my wife. Well, OK, I guess, and no doubt it would have been much more difficult to do a coherent chapter offering a theory of, say, fictional character, or realism, or morality and the novel. And I suppose it’s true that non-academic readers don’t want the kind of detail and complexity such a full account of these topics would require. Even so, the numbered bits felt lazy to me. The footnotes too had an aimlessness about them. Some of them covered ideas or examples that seemed no less important to their chapter than most of the bits allowed their own numbered section (note 53 on p. 150, to give one example) while others appeared entirely unnecessary to the book (note 40 on p. 121, or note 41 on p. 124, for instance).

The TLS reviewer objects to Wood’s “grace notes”: “It is sometimes hard to distinguish a gasp of admiration for another’s skill from the contented sigh when the books in one’s study satisfy one’s own theories.” I shared this reaction, not least because “how fine that is” (139) is an expression of taste, not criticism. But Wood is a compelling reader of details, even passages. It’s when he makes broader assertions that he leaves himself more open to objections. For one thing, he has some governing assumptions about what fiction is for that he treats as universal rather than historically or theoretically specific. In his chapter on “Sympathy and Complexity,” for instance, as a footnote to his remarks on fiction as a means of extending our sympathies (the occasion for one of his shockingly few references to George Eliot!), he adds this:

We don’t read in order to benefit in this way from fiction. We read fiction because it pleases us, moves us, is beautiful, and so on,--because it is alive and we are alive. (129)

Well, maybe, but not everybody, and not all the time: for instance, most of the Victorian critics of the novel I have been editing for my Broadview anthology would not have recognized this highly aestheticized motive for novel reading. Is it fair, or even sensible, to say that they were simply wrong? Or to ignore how the formal developments of the Victorian novel furthered ends not adequately respected by Wood’s post-Jamesian formulations? His is in many respects a teleological account of the history of the novel. “Progress!” he exclaims after a quotation from Proust: “In Fielding and Defoe, even in the much richer Cervantes, revelation of this altering kind occurs at the level of plot” (125). But were Fielding and Defoe trying to do what Proust did and failing? How much better we might understand them if we allow them what James calls their “donnée.” “It is subtlety that matters,” he declares in his chapter on character; “subtlety of analysis, of inquiry, of concern, of felt pressure”: “I learn more about the consciousness of the soldier in Chekhov’s The Kiss than I do about the consciousness of Becky Sharpe [sic] in Vanity Fair.” But Becky Sharp’s consciousness is surely not the point of Vanity Fair; indeed, I argue in my own lectures that too close a focus on Becky risks diverting us from Thackeray’s grand gesture of holding the mirror up to ourselves, so that the novel becomes an opportunity for us to reflect on our own morality and mortality. “Was she guilty or not?” the narrator asks--and, remarkably, will not tell us, because ultimately she is not the point but the occasion, the device. Thackeray is not a failed Chekhov any more than Dickens is a failed Flaubert. To Wood, “the history of the novel can be told as the development of free indirect style” (58), but such a narrow focus inevitably leads to a history is partial and often distorting. (About the operations of free indirect discourse and the importance of knowing who ‘owns’ which words, on the other hand, Wood is typically astute. Here’s one place where examples from Middlemarch would have served him well, though perhaps at the risk of undermining his generalizations. Consider this passage from Chapter 1, for instance:

And how should Dorothea not marry?—a girl so handsome and with such prospects? Nothing could hinder it but her love of extremes, and her insistence on regulating life according to notions which might cause a wary man to hesitate before he made her an offer, or even might lead her at last to refuse all offers. A young lady of some birth and fortune, who knelt suddenly down on a brick floor by the side of a sick laborer and prayed fervidly as if she thought herself living in the time of the Apostles—who had strange whims of fasting like a Papist, and of sitting up at night to read old theological books! Such a wife might awaken you some fine morning with a new scheme for the application of her income which would interfere with political economy and the keeping of saddle-horses: a man would naturally think twice before he risked himself in such fellowship. Women were expected to have weak opinions; but the great safeguard of society and of domestic life was, that opinions were not acted on. Sane people did what their neighbors did, so that if any lunatics were at large, one might know and avoid them.

Think how much is lost on a reader who improperly identifies the source of that word “naturally"--or of the last two sentences altogether!)

Wood is good on the telling detail as well and the quality he calls “thisness”: “any detail that draws abstraction towards itself and seems to kill that abstraction with a puff of palpability” (54). But again, when he moves into prescription, he becomes less persuasive, as when he objects to the “layer of gratuitous detail” in 19th-century realist fiction. Again, the challenge is in defining “gratuitous” (as, clearly, Wood himself is well aware), but he can’t propose any principle except, perhaps, his idea that “insignificant” details avoid irrelevance if they are “significantly insignificant” (68). After recounting an incident in which he and his wife had “invented entirely different readings” of a violinist’s frown at a concert, he claims that a “good novelist would have let that frown alone, and would have let our revealing comments alone, too: no need to smother this little scene in explanation” (72). Again, well, maybe. I can imagine at least one “good novelist” who might have done great things with their “different readings” of that little moment, perhaps even using their “revealing comments” as a chance to reveal even more about perception and reality as well as human relationships ("these things are a parable..."). Doesn’t it depend on what your novel is about and on the formal methods you are using to realize those goals?

I’d like to return before I close to the “Sympathy and Complexity” chapter, because this is a topic close to my heart, one on which I have spent a lot of my own critical energy recently, and one I expected Wood to handle particularly well. “Perfunctory” is the best word I can think of to describe it. I’ve mentioned already his dehistoricizing assumption that “we” don’t read in order to receive moral benefits. I doubt this is always true in practice, especially in these ‘Oprah’ days, and I also question the separation he implies between moral and aesthetic readings. Here is a case in which even a little research outside “the books at hand in [his] own study” would have immeasurably enriched his discussion: Booth’s The Company We Keep, for instance, would have helped him complicate exactly that separation. And the conversation about how fiction might do “what [Bernard] Williams wanted moral philosophy to do” (135) has many participants besides Williams (Martha Nussbaum comes promptly to mind!). Further, not all novels avoid providing “philosophical answers” (here, he replicates Nussbam’s error in generalizing about “the novel,” but as a professional novel reader, he should know better). Here the hybrid character of How Fiction Works proves a genuine weakness, I think. This chapter is not a full, responsible, or authoritative inquiry into its subject. Of course, it does not pretend to be (remember, the book promises only “a writer’s answers” to “a critic’s questions"). But then how should we evaluate it? Doesn’t Wood do even his non-specialist audience a disservice by taking up complicated subjects on which there already exists a rich body of scholarship and offering his own fairly casual observations with the confidence of real expertise? What a much greater contribution it would be to distill that complex material and present it accessibly! To grab what’s at hand and say just what comes to mind bespeaks an enviable but also problematic degree of confidence. And while the non-expert reader is in no position to object, the expert reader is easily deflected with the excuse that she is not the intended audience…

After I read How Fiction Works I re-read some of my collection of Wood’s essays, including his reviews of Never Let Me Go, Saturday, and Brick Lane. This is really wonderful stuff, as I have remarked before; I admire it wholeheartedly for its critical acuity, its literary elegance, and its moral seriousness. But considering How Fiction Works strictly as one among many books about books (and Wood is wrong, or perhaps disingenuous, when he says “there are surprisingly few books” of this kind about fiction [1]), I think there are better choices available. I think it’s an exciting development that Wood has landed a job in Harvard’s English Department. In taking this now unconventional route from journalism to the academy, he is following in the footsteps of many eminent Victorian critics (David Masson, for instance). But considering how bitterly difficult it is for those following the established professional route to land any academic job at all, it’s frustrating to think that he may not be held to anything like the same standard of rigour as many critics far less lauded and applauded. Here’s hoping that he has more books in him as good as The Broken Estate.


I hold a higher opinion of aphorism as a form, but James Wood is no aphorist. Freed from connectives and interruptions, he’s less likely to make discoveries than to cling to familiar pronouncements. That’s the risk when you decide to cut to the good part: other people might not agree as to what “the good part” is.

By Ray Davis on 03/27/08 at 10:05 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Rohan, thank you for this excellently argued post.  I haven’t read Wood’s book, but judging from his published essays and reviews, your characterization of Wood’s thought is spot on.

You point at a double standard in the practical/academic criticism worlds.  When a non-academic critic imposes a foreign world-view on art, we call it “fine judgment” or “discerning taste.” When an academic imposes an alien system of thought onto art, we call it mechanical or eggheaded or whathaveyou.  (Which is why I’d argue that Lester Bangs is ultimately a finer critic than Wood: Bangs had a rock-solid aesthetic that he brought to bear on all the art about which he wrote, but he was wise to restrict his writing to art that attested to a similar aesthetic itself.)

I always enjoy reading Wood’s work, but I can’t stand it when essayists like Wood are used as a stick for beating academic critics.

By on 03/27/08 at 07:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rohan—thanks for the excellent review, and welcome to The Valve.

By Amardeep Singh on 03/28/08 at 04:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rohan, this is gorgeous work. Cheers.

Wood’s claims don’t even appear to be closely aligned here: while indirect discourse can be a vehicle for representations of consciousness, it can also stand for spoken discourses like gossip. He appears torn between a sort of neo-Expressionism and earlier ideals of social representation.

Sometimes, in the midst of all Wood’s onrushing profundity, you get an unsettling feeling that he thinks Americans need to recapture the joy of sitting in the leather-bound armchair, with the leather-bound book, listening to Beethoven and inhaling sentiment. It’s a shame that this picture is so far removed from actual American life, or even from his kind of romanticism as it is actually lived and practiced today: for example, through wide-spectrum books like The Fortress of Solitude that resemble Thackeray far more than they resemble Chekhov.


I know what you mean about Bangs—I’m an academic, and I’ve probably purchased more works of criticism by Bangs and Greil Marcus than I have works by 99% of contemporary literary critics—but the guy did have his clichéd side. Some of his “rough and tumble” attempts at vernacular, and some of his most utopian moments, are way too expected.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 03/28/08 at 11:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther, Amardeep, Joseph: Thank you for the kind words.  The Victorianist in me certainly chafes at Wood’s disdain for what he calls “the essential juvenility of plot.” There are more things in heaven and earth than were dreamed of or valued by the modernists.

By Rohan Maitzen on 03/30/08 at 09:37 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Wood hasn’t even bothered to address the astonishing symbiosis between the novel and the cinema, in the evolution of narrative, from the beginning of the 20th century on, for one thing. And he blithely minimizes the *essentially* intimate (as subjective as subjective gets) nature of reading.

He goes so far as to pinpoint the molecular weight of specific words in particular sentences (eg, “embarrassingly” from “What Maisie Knew”; of the sentence “Mrs Wix was as safe as Clara Matilda, who was in heaven and yet, embarrassingly, also in Kensal Green, where they had been together to see her little huddled grave”, Wood writes:  “Whose word is ‘embarrassingly’? It is Maisie’s: it is embarrassing for a child to witness adult grief . . .” leading us to wonder whose word that “little” is, in describing the grave; also leading us to wonder if Wood knows that adult grief is quite often *frightening* to children and that, therefore, perhaps “embarrassingly” belongs to The Master himself, a natural snob?) as though these words were the same, every time, for everyone.

He has a narrow purview, from which he makes overly-ambitious claims. He puts me in mind of a fellow with a freakishly detailed knowledge of 19th century tax law who always, somehow, manages to shift the conversation, wherever it may have started, in that direction. And to keep it there.

Anyone in possession of a copy of Kundera’s “Testaments Betrayed”, a look at “the novel” by an *accomplished novelist* (what a novel concept), can read in the paragraph, starting at the bottom of page 74, under the heading “Modernism’s Great Works as Rehabilitation of the First Half”, as concise a refutation of Wood’s schtick as one is likely to need.

“How Fiction Works” (I love the hubris of that title) shows the cracks in the Wood facade. The easily-intimidated, of course, received the book with knee-jerk rapture, as ever, but responses like Maitzen’s (and Sophie Ratcliff’s, in the TLS) are heartening evidence that Wood is no longer quite getting away with subsituting convictions for insights.

By Steven Augustine on 04/03/08 at 05:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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