James Wood, How Fiction Works

(Cross-posted to The Valve. 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 (though 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. Frequently in the margins of my students’ work I write “And so? Finish the thought!” One effect of crafting, first paragraphs, and then 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 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, 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 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 “donnee. “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 that 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 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 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 true in practice, 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 many better choices available. I continue to recommend David Lodge’s The Art of Fiction, for instance, which takes up many of the same topics as Wood, though under a less grandiose umbrella of prescriptive claims. 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.

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