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Life on the Page

How Fiction Works

By James Wood
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008

The limitations of James Wood’s How Fiction Works become evident in just its first few pages. In his Introduction, Wood tells us that although he admires the critics Victor Shklovsky and Roland Barthes, among their deficiencies was their failure to write as if they expected “to be read and comprehended by any kind of common reader,” a mistake that Wood himself presumably will not make. (“Mindful of the common reader,” he writes a little later, “I have tried to reduce what Joyce calls ‘the true scholastic stink’ to bearable levels.”) But exactly who, or what, is the “common reader”? Is it the reader who keeps up on all the latest mystery novels? Who these days prefers memoir to fiction? Who might be led to read literary fiction if it could be made rather less literary? More to the point, does any kind of common reader turn to highbrow French or Russian literary critics for help with their reading strategies in the first place?

Even if we were to concede the existence of large numbers of enthusiastic readers just waiting for the right literary critic to come along and illuminate the deeper mysteries of fiction for them, Wood’s book surely would not perform this task. How Fiction Works is no more free of a constricted perspective and of “specialized” discourse than A Theory of Prose or S/Z. What would a “common” reader make of this passage, from the chapter called “A Brief History of Consciousness”?  


Under the new dispensation of the invisible audience, the novel becomes the great analyst of unconscious motive, since the character is released from having to voice his motives: the reader becomes the hermeneut, looking between the lines for the actual motive. On the other hand, the absence of a visible audience seems to make the ordinary man seek an audience, in ways that would have seemed grotesque to lordly figures like the Macbeths. Many of the characters in Crime and Punishment seem compelled to act out horrid pantomimes and melodramas, in which they stage a version of themselves, for effect. [King] David and Macbeth were men of action—you might say they were naturally dramatic (they knew who their audiences were); Raskolnikov is unnaturally theatrical, or better still, histrionic: he seeks attention, and he is desperately unstable and unauthentic, hiding at one moment, confessing at another, proud in one scene, self-abasing in the next. In the novel, we can see the self better than any literary form has yet allowed; but it is not going too far to say that the self is driven mad by being so invisibly scrutinized.

It isn’t so much the use of the formal critical term “hermeneut” that would cause the untutored reader to pause in puzzlement over this paragraph (although such a reader almost certainly would have no idea what the term means, even with the brief and partial illustration that follows it). The whole notion that the reader needs to be analyzing characters in novels for “unconscious motives” would likely seem peculiar, even for those with some vague understanding of Freud. Why would we want to regard characters in a novel as if they were actual people, people with minds and motives and a “consciousness”? What do we need with motive when we have violence and insanity? Equally, the idea that Raskolnikov is play-acting for the reader, is both “theatrical” and “histrionic,” has to seem just as strange, except to the extent that one might wish these scenes to be over quickly so the real action might begin. To suggest that the real action occurs precisely in the character’s “histrionics,” that in a novel like Crime and Punishment “we can see the self better than any literary form has yet allowed,” is probably only to confirm that literary criticism has little to offer the common reader after all, as it seems so plainly antithetical to the “motive” a truly common reader—one who reads fiction not to the “see the self” but to escape the self—brings to the act of reading.

And the common reader would not necessarily be wrong in dismissing Wood’s analysis of the “invisible audience” and its hermeneutical scrutiny of literary character, for reasons that go beyond an initial resistance to pretentious language and an opaque reading strategy. While it is arguably productive to read Dostoevsky for his revelation of “unconscious motive”—arguable because it is just as sensible to forego engaging with Raskolnikov and his tedious mental machinations and emotional hysterics—Wood doesn’t intend his examination of Crime and Punishment and other of Dostoevsky’s books to apply only to his fiction. For Wood, the opportunity to access the “mind” of a fictional character is the primary reward of reading, the representation of a mind at work the principal goal of fiction writing. Wood’s account of “how fiction works” is prescriptive, not descriptive: he wants to convince his common readers that the way of reading he presents in his book is the one proper way of reading and that the kind of fiction that most directly satisfies the specified readerly requirements is the only kind really worthy of our attention.

Wood next sets out in his introduction a list of “essential questions” he asserts his book will be answering:

…Is realism real? How do we define a successful metaphor? What is a character? When do we recognize a brilliant use of detail in fiction? What is point of view, and how does it work? What is imaginative sympathy? Why does fiction move us…?

  The answer to the first question is, of course, “yes,” and from this contention all else in Wood’s critical construction follows. The purpose of fiction, as Wood will ultimately put it, is to put “life on the page,” albeit with the “highest artistry.” The separate chapters of How Fiction Works are aimed at convincing us that this artistry consists of judicious use of metaphors (avoiding the kind of “writing over” of character committed by vulgar stylists such as John Updike and David Foster Wallace), creation of characters whose “life on the page” is presumably to be located primarily on that part of the page where “mind” is to be found, the supply of moderate detail that doesn’t indulge in an “over-aesthetic” appreciation of details, the near-exclusive use of third-person point of view and the “free indirect style,” which is itself the novelist’s most essential strategy for creating “imaginative sympathy” and producing fiction that will “move us.”

Perhaps Wood’s recipe for a ready-made fiction seems only reasonable, an unexceptional set of ingredients likely to result in a recognizably “serious” novel of fine writing and “psychological realism.” And should one feel that this sort of novel is the right and proper sort of novel novelists ought to be writing, then probably nothing beyond Wood’s account of the essentials of good practice needs to be said. But for those of us who think that Wood’s description of “how fiction works” is but one possible (and highly tendentious) description, that despite Wood’s occasional citation of a still-living writer and his lip service to the notion that the novel “always wriggles out of the rules thrown around it,” his account is mostly backward-looking, an examination of what has been done, rather than forward-looking, a discussion of fiction that emphasizes what still might be done. The message that “any kind of common reader” is likely to take from his book is that the art of fiction is now settled, all of the possible aesthetic innovations the form might offer already achieved. If you want to read the best that fiction has to offer, Wood’s book clearly enough implies, stick with the line of Anglo-European fiction extending from Henry James to Henry Green. If you want to be an esteemed writer, do what Dostoevsky does, what D.H. Lawrence does, what Virginia Woolf and Saul Bellow do.

Wood is currently the most well-regarded generalist literary critic in the English-speaking literary world, and it is discouraging to say the least that such a figure uses his influence to conduct a rearguard action against the forces of change in literary practice, against those who, like William Gass (Wood’s bête noire in this book), want to transform our perception of fiction as the effort to depict “people” and “life” to one that can encompass that goal (with many provisos) but can also capture the reader’s attention in other ways, ways more responsive to the possibilities of fiction as imaginative manipulation of language and form. Wood makes his case for realism always within a context in which it is endangered by postmodernists and other stylistically immoderate writers who don’t appreciate its subtleties and are tearing fiction away from its proper relationship to “the world.” (American writers seem particularly guilty of this offense, as the brief references Wood makes to such writers as John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, and Don De Lillo are mostly derogatory, while no mention at all is made of important post-World War II American writers such as Stanley Elkin, John Hawkes, Donald Barthelme, Richard Powers, or Stephen Dixon, all of whom no doubt violate one or another of Wood’s critical strictures.) Thus, in the final paragraph of his introduction, Wood informs us that “fiction is both artifice and verisimilitude” and that he will “give the most detailed accounts of the technique of that artifice…in order to reconnect that technique to the world.”

Wood, as well as many other literary critics concerned about the alleged loss of “the world” in fiction, seems to think that this is the most pressing difference between the kind of life-reproducing realism he advocates and the fiction of writers who don’t understand or respect it—those writers are withdrawing from the world, are more interested in the “artifice” that in the “connection” that must be made to the world of experience. Now, if making such a connection means merely that the novelist’s artifice is fashioned out of accumulated experience—that is, through what is learned by being alive—then a connection between art and world is always implicit in a work of fiction. But Wood means in his formulation to suggest “connection” between the work and the world outside the work as if that world were being attached to the words of the text by an umbilical cord of reference. For whatever reason, extreme partisans of literary realism such as James Wood want to regard a novel, which is ultimately a prose composition, an artful arrangement of words, as somehow containing “the world,” rendering people, places, and things not just metaphorically—or as Gass puts it, as “pretended mode[s] of referring,”—but as real “objects of perception.”

This underlying allegiance to realism as the conduit to life, however, is in Wood’s case secondary to the higher-order reality of human consciousness, gaining access to which is Wood’s most dedicated mission as a reader of fiction. To that end, the first chapter of How Fiction Works is devoted to an anatomy of point of view, quickly settling on the free indirect style of third-person narration as the strategy most conducive to the task of representing consciousness. Wood succinctly and effectively describes the free indirect style—“The narrative seems to float away from the novelist and take on the properties of the character, who now seems to ‘own’ the words. The writer is free to inflect the reported thought, to bend it round the character’s own words”—but in declaring its effects to be the most satisfying the novel can ever produce he is foreclosing the possibility novels might in the future develop in new and surprising directions, directions taken, for example, by such recent novels as Tom McCarthy’s Remainder or Zachary Mason’s The Lost Books of the Odyssey. And here again Wood does not merely intend to suggest that novelists can sometimes perform a little trick that persuades us to suspend our disbelief and pretend along with the author that we’re actually exploring the “mind” of a character, a character we also agree to consider a “person,” at least for the duration of the narrative in front of us. “Mind” as trope or conceit, as an illusion the writer creates to get on with the writing, simply won’t do. “Mind” in fiction must as “real” as any other phenomenon of the world; “life on the page,” must be a mental life with which the greatest writers allow us to “merge.”

Ultimately the most disconcerting thing about How Fiction Works, and about James Wood’s criticism in general, is that while Wood on the one hand expresses near-reverence for the virtues of fiction, the terms in which he judges the value of fiction as a literary form implicitly disparages it. He doesn’t want to let fiction be fiction. Instead, he asks that it provide some combination of psychological analysis, metaphysics, and moral instruction, and assumes that novelists are in some way qualified to offer these services. He abjures them to avoid “aestheticism” (too much art) and to instead be respectful of “life.” As he puts it his book’s conclusion:

The true writer, that free servant of life, is one who must always be acting as if life were a category beyond anything the novel had yet grasped; as if life itself were always on the verge of becoming conventional.

To the extent it is fully clear what this sentence is supposed to mean, it seems to posit that the novel exists to record life, to “grasp” at it even though life will elude the grasp (or at least the novelist must always fear it will). Fiction is to be measured by the justice it does to life.

There is another view of what fiction can accomplish, one that does not make it subservient to an agenda of fidelity to “the real.” In this view, what continues to elude the novel as a form is the limit of its own potential for innovation. In this view, life is always already conventional, and a novel exists not as a reproduction of reality but as an addition to it, a supplement. And in this view, a work of fiction is measured by the justice it does to the aesthetic possibilities of the form, possibilities that surely exceed the arbitrary boundaries James Wood wants to enforce. Readers of How Fiction Works should keep in mind that, even if it is true that “The house of fiction has many windows, but only two or three doors,” the door being opened here is still not the only one available.

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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