James Wood Has a Superficial Understanding of Fiction

James Wood is perhaps the most celebrated literary critic around, and his offer of employment at the New Yorker a few years ago was practically an inevitability. Long time readers of this blog will know I have mixed feelings about the man, on the one hand praising his analysis and critical acumen, and on the other despairing his hopelessly conservative tastes and high modernist sensibility. However, I never quite grasped the true depths of what is deeply wrong in his critical understanding until I read his most recent book, How Fiction Works.

Understand: this is a book that spends three chapters talking about the importance of detail (before Wood concludes that he is "ambivalent" about details in fiction), but has not one single chapter about plot. Indeed, plot is twice dismissed as juvenile, and Wood turns to the example of Flaubert again and again, the man who, Wood says, wanted to write a book about "nothing", that got by on style alone.

So what is Wood's objection against plot exactly? Consider this passage (in a foot-note) where he discusses Pynchon:

There is nothing more eighteenth-century (emphasis mine) than Pynchon's love of picaresque plot accumulation... the cost of final seriousness is considerable: everyone is ultimately protected from the real menace because no one really exists. The massive turbines of the incessant story-making produce so much noise that no one can be heard.

This is not a bad assessment of the problem of character in Pynchon. It's even shrewd. However, the disparagement of "eighteenth century" implies here—along with sentences like "the novel soon showed itself willing to surrender the essential juvenility of plot"--that plot was something that needed to be grown out of, that we evolved away from in the course of the nineteenth century. Which is absurd, and in the final analysis misses the mark on Pynchon's plot problem entirely. It's true that in many books, including Pynchon's, the plot can often drown out character development. But when done correctly, plot is character development, because character is developed through conflict.

But then, nothing is more baffling to me than the existence of a book purporting to explain "how fiction works" that spends virtually no time discussing the importance of conflict, the engine that makes fiction go, the thing through which characters grow and develop and reveal themselves. Wood's chapter on character is a collection of observations about the use of detail, the telling sentence or metaphor, which are all fine techniques, but are not how a character develops at all. Indeed, the development of a character is something he says almost nothing about--but then, how could he, given that he dismisses plot and ignores conflict?

James Wood is never better than when he's doing close reading; in terms of individual paragraphs he can pull out really interesting insights from changes of register or the artful use of close third person narration. If this book was called "techniques in fiction", this pure emphasis on style and detail would be fine. But style and detail are means to an end, and not the end in itself. They tell us nothing about how fiction achieves its power, or how it fits into the human storytelling impulse. And frankly, I suspect he doesn't address this because he simply doesn't know.

A book called How Fiction Works, in my mind, should attempt to explain why something like The Lord of the Rings, often dismissed by literary critics (including myself) for its many flaws, becomes something that looms so largely in people's lives. How does that work? What is it about fiction, beyond the superficial techniques, that gives it its power? And I don't mean that Wood needs to develop some Campbellian arch-theory about how all stories are metaphors for how we live our lives (though it would have been fascinating if Wood had addressed Campbell), but that there's something to the combination of plot and character that means something to people, and to understand that mechanism is to understand how fiction works. And, yes, language is important too, but I would argue, and go back to Aristotle for my argument, that plot and character are far moreso. There are many works that I find immensely powerful despite inartful use of language. (Philip K. Dick's books spring to mind.)

But then, I think I'm hardly alone in thinking that a book in which nothing happens, which gets by "on style alone", sounds terrifically, painfully boring. For Flaubert, in the mid-nineteenth century, it was a radical notion, and daring, but as an ideal for fiction it leaves a lot to be desired. Wood makes his mistake in thinking that understanding aesthetic tendencies of a certain kind of high-modernism, a modernism the descends from his heros like Flaubert and Chekhov, is to understand how fiction works. He justifies this in his final chapter, where he defends "realism" from its detractors, calls it the "central impulse in fiction-making" (sigh), and then performs the alarming and ultimately disingenuous trick of equating "realism" with "truth". Thereby he manages to include writers like Kafka and Beckett in his realist ranks, because they wrote about "truth" (or perhaps Truth, though Wood never quite has gumption to capitalise). He continues that its this truth/realism that allows for genre, for magical realism and "hysterical realism" (Wood's own derogatory term) and science fiction and fantasy and so on, because all of them orbit the truth/realism principle embodied by writers like Flaubert.

It hardly needs to be said that I think this is nonsense, and that the sudden equating of realism to truth is a feint, a trick, a cover-up. It's allows him to go back and include, say, The Odyssey, The Tempest, or 100 Years of Solitude as realism, though they are not "realistic"; in other words, this is simply a way for Wood to include as "realism" anything he deems good and discard anything he deems bad. Without this equation, Wood's notion that realism is the primary storytelling impulse is laughable; in fact most of the great works before the rise of high modernism (and many after) were not realistic at all, including the wonderfully contrived, thrilling, and convoluted works of Shakespeare, widely dubbed the greatest writer in the English language. Shakespeare was not just a writer who understood poetry and language and detail and metaphor (though he certainly did), but also someone who understood plot and conflict and drama (no pun intended) and the thrill of a well-placed sword fight. And someone who would dismiss those things, utterly ignore those elements of fiction that I consider to be part of what makes fiction so addictive and compelling and meaningful, is someone who doesn't understand fiction at all.


My take isn't so harsh,

My take isn't so harsh, although I agree with you about the last chapter and the handwaving at "truth" which he never really bothers to define clearly. What I think the title of the book should have been though is "how suspension of disbelief works" because I think that's really what Wood is talking about and if you take him from that perspective, everything he says makes sense. What he is trying to get at, and I think accomplishes, is not anything about fiction, but rather how the written word absorbs a reader. that's what, at base, all his ruminations on style are getting at. And I think it's telling on this point that he completely avoids talking about fiction in anything other than the novel, which is notable as a fiction genre primarily for it's ability to engross and suck in the reader to the point that the reader is no longer aware that he is reading a novel. I think, genuinely, that's what James Wood is interested in and that's why he's so taken with Flaubert, Dostoevsky, Proust and the like. Because for them, their radical stylistic refinements were a departure from the romanticism of the previous era. They were working in an environment that required a reaction to the melodramas of novelists like Dickens and Austen, which are shallow in their choice of conflict specifically, although clearly you can make a case that in Austen at least, Old Jane is very much aware of the ridiculousness of her subjects and their preoccupations.

More to the point, I think the reason that Wood goes to these novels so often in his criticism is not so much a conservatism as they are great examples of how he thinks style should work, and also because they present him with lots of grist for the mill of his stupendous talent for close reading, at which, in my opinion, he's unsurpassed by any contemporary critic (possibly excepting Marjorie Perloff.) But if you look at something like this: http://marksarvas.blogs.com/elegvar/2009/02/james-woods-best-books-since-1945-circa-1994.html#more which lists the books that Wood genuinely likes I think what actually appears is a crack in his critical acumen for how novels work at the large scale. I think Wood understands better than anybody how the novel absorbs a reader at the micro level and he's right about much of that in what he writes in How Fiction Works. But at the macro level he fails. Because frankly, there is something at the organizational and conceptual level of The Sotweed Factor, V, Naked Lunch, Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, or Catch 22 which is what makes them great beyond the fact that they are absorbing at the micro level. I think, actually, that a lot of his criticism of the "hysterical realism" issue is really just his weariness with the endless paratactical structures that have made their way out of poetry into prose because reading that kind of thing as closely as he seems to read everything, i don't know, it would drive me fucking nuts. What keeps you going in a book like Infinite Jest isn't the absorption that Wood values, but rather Wallace's intentional standoffishness, which frankly, I think, reflects something of an attempt to be oracular and recitative in a different way. You're not absorbed in the book that contains a story, you're reading David Foster Wallace telling a story. There's no sublimation of the authorial voice, and I think Wood hates that because it gets in the way of how he likes to read.

"I think, actually, that a

"I think, actually, that a lot of his criticism of the "hysterical realism" issue is really just his weariness with the endless paratactical structures that have made their way out of poetry into prose because reading that kind of thing as closely as he seems to read everything, i don't know, it would drive me fucking nuts."

The problem with Wood's stance, however, is that what he considers "hysterical" isn't what everyone would consider hysterical. He mistakes his subjective tastes for something we can all agree on. Much of what Wood considers the height of realism, I consider somewhat inflated and artificial, and vice versa.

For instance, he adores the writing of Saul Bellow, but some of Bellow's stuff seems to me to be the very epitome of "hysterical realism," including the overrated and overwritten Augie March. By contrast, I never found DeLillo's Underworld excessively "hysterical" in its tone. I remember reading a negative review of Pynchon's Mason & Nixon ("Levity's Rainbow") in which Wood digressed to take a few shots at The Crying of Lot 49 as well. He made the valid point that Pynchon's characters tend to be cartoons or caricatures, that "they do everything but move us."

But then he took issue with the ending of Lot 49, and in particular the ruminations Pynchon put into the head of Oedipa Maas. This, in my view, was a non-sequitur, because Wood started off complaining about the superficiality of Pynchon's favoured mode of delineating character, but ended up complaining that Oedipa's very weltanschauung, as articulated in these final pages of the novel, was simplistic and wrong. I wholeheartedly agree with Wood that Pynchon's characters are generally "flat," not "round," but I think Oedipa Maas is actually the grand exception. She seems more "real" to me than his other zanies: maybe he should've tried writing more often from a female point of view. And in that final chapter, Pynchon made his most sustained effort to invest his heroine with a mind, a heart, and a soul. So what Wood was really protesting was Pynchon's, or Oedipa's, worldview. Wood tried to pass off his moral and political objections as aesthetic ones. It was really Pynchon's political and moral vision that irked Wood, yet he continued to protest this political difference of opinion on aesthetic grounds. Yes, it's true that Pynchon's characters are generally wafer-thin ideograms, but Oedipa Maas is the rare exception to this rule. Yet Oedipa in particular seemed to irk James Wood! Why? When you look at the specifics of Wood's complaint, they turn out to be more political and moral than aesthetic. What Wood took to be a particular "hysterical" excerpt seemed to me to be less hysterical than some of the ruminations found in Bellow's work (which Wood nevertheless dotes on). A passage Wood scorned as hysterical and false, I found easier to accept as "truth" than much of what Wood evidently finds wholly unproblematic in writers he adulates such as Bellow or Naipaul.

And Wood very, very often argues in bad faith. For instance, he asks us to "imagine a world in which the only possible novel available was, say, Pynchon's Vineland and books like it. It would be a hysterical and falsifying monotony. By contrast, a world in which the only available novel was, say, A House for Mr. Biswas would be a fearfully honest, comic, tragic, compassionate, and above all deeply human place."

This is yet more sleight of hand. Vineland is generally considered to be Pynchon's worst novel, the one novel of his detested even by some of his most ardent admirers, like Harold Bloom. Of all his published works, it's the one with the lowest critical standing at this moment in time. By contrast, the general critical consensus seems to be that Mr. Biswas is Naipaul's best work of fiction. So there's a bit of deception going on here. It would be like arguing Flaubert is a more important writer than Dostoyevsky, and using Madame Bovary to represent Flaubert, and using Netochka Nezvanova to represent Dostoyevsky.

I think that's a legitimate

I think that's a legitimate point, sure. But at the same time, Vineland is probably my second favorite pynchon novel, and i hated A House for Mr. Biswas, so it's entirely possible that I am just so far removed from the world of general criticism that I can't see eye to eye with anybody. My tendency to defend James Wood is, I admit, largely based on the fact that I think of all the well known critics working in mainstream literary journalism and not in academia, he's the best there is for contemporary American poetry, and the fact that he is there to challenge Bloom and Vendler really is more important to me than the fact that he, frankly, just doesn't understand novels like Infinite Jest and more's the pity but really it's his loss and his railing against it isn't going to do any harm to David Foster Wallace's or Thomas Pynchon's or John Barth's or Zadie Smith's legacy in any way.

Thank you for not being

Thank you for not being intimidated into writing a sycophantic review, like so many other critics and critic wannabes. I totally agree with you about this book. I find James Wood's take on how fiction works incomplete and simplistic. It seems to me that he covers up his inadequacies in the field of fiction by throwing in so "sophisticated" terms and names of obscured philosophers to add weight to his arguments.

Great commentary!

Great commentary!