“How Fiction Works”


James Wood may be the most tenacious watchdog literature has ever had.  A passionate disciple of the one true religion, he brings the judgment of the heavens down upon heretics, lapsed believers, and infidels.  His moral seriousness is notorious; many a wayward writer has felt himself a sinner in the hands of an angry apostle.  When he dislikes a book one feels not only his professional disapproval but his mortal indignation.  But his criticism is rescued from mere crankiness by the fact that in it the claims of the reader are always prior to the claims of the critic.  Before anything else Wood is a great reader. Even at his grumpiest he sounds notes of pleasure ‘nicer’ critics forget.  Through Wood’s eyes literature is the garden of sesames and lilies of which Ruskin wrote, an enchanted world of intelligible, blissful mysteries.  Books he dislikes are still books he has tried desperately to like; if he scolds, he scolds as a frustrated lover.  As Wood told n+1 magazine a few years ago, his negative reviews were his way of telling authors, “Write better!”  In The Guardian, in October 2001, he published a stern lecture to the current slate of young novelists about measuring up to the moral and artistic imperatives of life in a post-9/11 world.  Zadie Smith served up an obsequious response about how ashamed she felt at the lack of words she had to describe this frightening new world.  Sounding helpless and chastened, Smith’s essay ended with an appeal for the mad mystic to come down from the mountain and answer the questions, “How is this book made?  How can I do this?”

Fortunately for us, Wood took pity on Smith and gave us How Fiction Works.  This lively, sure, elegantly written essay seeks to explain just how it is that writers conjure their magic.  His “little book”, as he calls it, is a conversational, more confidently assertive, less donnish cousin of E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel.  Wondrously footloose in Wood’s megasphere of literary reference, the book is sharper and more collected than Forster’s series of Cambridge lectures which were so ragged and unsystematic that Forster’s tone was at times almost self-consciously apologetic.  Wood gets around this by reporting that he has written the book in his study, using for inspiration only the books nearest at hand: an afternoon lark, a morning’s pleasant diversion.  Sure. It is difficult to believe any reader will be taken in by this show of modesty; the book is ambitiously called How Fiction Works, after all, and in any case it would be like describing the conversation of Dr. Johnson as polite after-dinner chatter.

Wood’s chief asset as a critic is a fluid readerly sensitivity which prizes the concrete.  His thoughts never float into the abstract.  They are always bounded on all sides by solid matter.  Wood has the sort of connoisseur’s eye for detail that makes the rest of us seem blind in comparison. “I relish it, consume it, ponder it”, he enthuses.  Sharing his catches like a proud fisherman, Wood mentions dozens of details he’s found in fiction, a few of which are Marlow’s boots filling with blood in Heart of Darkness, Falstaff’s “Kendal green” in Henry IV, Part I, the thirty minutes of silence as Gurov eats his melon in “The Lady With The Little Dog”, and many others. The keen joy of How Fiction Works is the privilege of watching over the shoulder of a masterful reader.  Wood cites one memorable passage in A Sentimental Education in which Frederic wanders through a street in the Latin Quarter.  After quoting the lines, Wood discusses how Flaubert’s details reveal the core of the novelist’s talent, her ability to choose some details and not others. 

Just as when we watch a film we no longer notice what has been excluded, what is just outside the edges of the camera frame, so we no longer notice what Flaubert chooses not to notice. And we no longer notice that what he has selected is not of course casually scanned but quite savagely chosen, that each detail is almost frozen in its gel of chosenness.  How superb and magnificently isolate these details are—the women yawning, the unopened newspapers, the washing quivering in the warm air.

The effect is “lifelike” but in an “artificial way”. Flaubert’s “smooth wall of prose” thus represents an important clue as to how truth can be made to permeate a fiction. Any fictional expression can be “lifelike” because even in plain old reality anything at all can turn into what Chesterton called the ‘random symbols of the soul’ combining to create ‘the ungovernable sense of life’.

In fact, this mysterious interplay between truth and artifice comes to be central, precisely in its ostensibly superfluity.  Wood introduces us to the novelist’s ability to re-create “life’s margin of the gratuitous” in his use of surplus details, a handy formulation easy to imagine as appealing to critics and readers alike.  Surplus details, even the naggingly unnecessary ones like Madame Aubain’s barometer in Flaubert’s A Simple Heart, are always useful as artistic effects.   They are “studiedly irrelevant”: “You wastefully leave the lights on in your home or hotel room when you aren’t there, not to prove that you exist, but because the margin of surplus itself feels like life, feels in some curious way like being alive”.  To note a great detail is merely to be an attentive, engaged reader.  To note great irrelevant details, or even carefully placed lacunae in the narrative, requires a painterly eye for negative space (in The Broken Estate, when he describes his childhood with Nabokovian beauty as a “hush around a noise”), the ability to see what isn’t visible, like the king in Alice In Wonderland.

In short, proper reading almost amounts to a kind of artistry itself. This ability to appreciate “surplus details”—to know something is both superfluous and necessary—is almost a talent, raising the question of whether or not he is too dexterous a critic to pass on any useful knowledge.  The flaw of How Fiction Works, as manifest here as it is in every one of his other essays, is that Wood’s critical vision extends to the space outside the camera frame, to use his metaphor.  To appreciate the choice a writer makes, one must also have some sense of which choices the writer rejected.  Few can follow Wood in this regard (and it is worth remembering that Wood is also a novelist himself).  All too often his generous and capacious judgment as a reader keeps expanding until it suddenly contracts into a smallness that includes nothing but his own taste.  Who can argue with a critic who is not only well prepared but fully equipped to argue convincingly for superfluous details and negative space?  He admits as much when he says that “The novel is the great virtuoso of exceptionalism: it always wriggles out of the rules thrown around it”.  The message of How Fiction Works, to which Wood alludes with a wink from time to time, is that there are no discernible rules for how fiction works.  Fiction works when James Wood likes it and malfunctions when he doesn’t. 

This is not to accuse Wood of megalomania, merely to illustrate a problem in his thinking.  To the charge of expansiveness approaching slackness—of a set of rules so flexible as to be functionally useless—Wood might refer us to the passage in the book in which he discusses Duns Scotus’ “thisness” (a notion which had sired Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “inscape” over a century earlier), showing us that a novel “tutors” its readers in how it is to be read, brings into being a centrifugal force keeping it in harmony with its own unique laws of creation.  As soon as a novel comes to life in our minds, it suddenly comes to resemble itself in our field of perception.  Just when the novel firmly emerges in its own quiddity, apart from reality and tradition alike, it somehow reflects the real and the traditional back to us.  What is real in the book suddenly meshes with what is real in the reader, forging a bond.

If this is true, the novel can only teach us about life after it teaches us how to read itself.  In other words, the secret to good writing is knowing how to create good readers.  The arrival of the dorsal shiver Nabokov championed as the truest test of good writing justifies a book’s existence.  Pleasure obviates the whys and hows.  Wood knows he doesn’t need to hammer out a set of commandments about how novels should be written.  Demonstrating careful reading is more important than explaining good writing.  It is enough merely to offer an account of how a good writer helps a reader read though “dialectical tutoring”.  No one taught this better than Nabokov, whose Cornell lectures were advanced reading tutorials.  Wood knows the world isn’t waiting for a critic to explain how fiction works.  Any reader who has learned to “caress the details” knows exactly how fiction works. 

“Thisness” means a work of art unified under its own rules, a cosmos animated by the physics of its style which comes to life and through its sparkling prism shows us what our life is like.  In this way Wood sidesteps the question of the more common meaning of “realism”, that is, art that slavishly tries to parrot life.  Invoking Kafka, Hamsun and Beckett as examples of non-realistic realism, as it were, Wood throws open the term to wider jurisdiction.  Gregor Samsa’s surreal plight as a dung beetle tells us something about father-son relationships, or the hero of Hunger eating his own fingers tells us something about desperation and want.  It isn’t life a good novel gives us, but it’s almost as good—the closest thing to life, as Eliot said.  Good writing parades “lifeness” before us, the neologism Wood proudly palms like a pie taken fresh from his kitchen.  Realism, as a mode of fiction, is only one of many possible roads leading to life.

The concern with life in Wood’s criticism is a quasi-sacramental vision of the place literature occupies in a world bereft of God: fiction is secular scripture, which was the subject of his first book, The Broken Estate.  Each novel Wood takes up is a chance to solve one more riddle of existence, decipher one more of reality’s enigmas, as if each writer were a prophet or an apostle. Novelists, those clever noticers, artfully compose new gospels—of reality.  The deity to be worshipped is already under our noses:

Literature teaches us to notice—to notice the way my mother, say, often wipes her lips just before kissing me; the drilling sound of a London cab when its diesel engine is flabbily idling; the way old leather jackets have white lines in them like the striations of fat in pieces of meat; the way fresh snow ‘creaks’ underfoot; the way a baby’s arms are so fat that they seem tied with string (ah, the others are mine but that last example is from Tolstoy!).

It is always the real to which these gospeals point. Fiction is the atlas of the real, he declared elsewhere in The Broken Estate.  Nothing is more important for an artist than to find a new and illuminating approach to the true and the real.  Ironically, the intensity of his devotion to the real can be measured by the intensity of his denial of God.  Devotion is really the word; his search for the real, in which each work of fiction is a guide, has a basis in a religious impulse, a remnant of his childhood that survived his turn to atheism.  He says, of evangelicals, that even those who stray from the faith retain a strong distaste for indifference.  “Thou art neither hot or cold; I would thou were hot or cold.  As thou are lukewarm, I will spue thee out of my mouth”, says Revelation, and this is precisely the tenor of Wood’s criticism. Here again Wood's entirely reasonable arguments unexpectedly shut the door on his readers. Just as many readers haven't the authorial eye Wood has, many will also lack the zeal to follow him on what is clearly a species of holy crusade.

This is an exaggeration, but not a gross one. As evangelical Christians might caution against the worldly church, of “works without faith”, of the aestheticization of God, so Wood repeatedly uses his pulpit to rail against books insufficiently steeped in the real.  Wood’s criticism is as grand as it is precisely because he is motivated by a religious impulse toward secular knowledge.  Belief in the church but not in God is a kind of heresy for the religious, and for Wood, too.  The real—and Wood is careful to distinguish between the real and “realism”—needs its proselytizers.  In his most infamous kneecapping of contemporary fiction, Wood used a review of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections to attack what he termed “hyperrealism”.  Hyperrealism (elsewhere “informational realism” or “hyperliteralism”) threatens to drown the novel in a bloated surfeit of dead detail and a manic addiction to digression: works without faith.  “Human consciousness is the truest Stendhalian mirror, reflecting helplessly the newly dark lights of the age”, Wood wrote.  Without saying it, he took up the banner first raised by Saul Bellow in 1965.  Accepting his National Book Award for Herzog, Bellow caused a stir by railing against his fellow novelists’ rapid slide into irrelevance: “Isolated professionalism is death. Without the common world the novelist is nothing but a curiosity and will find himself in a glass case along some dull museum corridor of the future”.

The problem is that contemporary novels, concerned with finding a truthful representation of the real, likely cannot exist as unified entities.  Consciousness in today's fiction must depict diffusion, fragmentation, distraction, and hybridity in the outside world. Within—if within/without even applies anymore—the self is a tremulous, wraithlike entity floating and merging, splitting and cloning, with everything it touches.  “Thisness” shatters into “This, That, and the Other”.  Nearly every one of the younger generation of writers Wood has taken to task has come up short in precisely the attempt to negotiate this minefield.  Prose like David Foster Wallace’s description of the office park in Infinite Jest, which Wood berates, is a more apt description of contemporary consciousness than, say, To The Lighthouse or Ulysses.  Wallace’s novelistic mirroring of consciousness, stitched together from alien languages and dead discourse, is as effective in its alienating effects as the rivers of cliché Joyce parodied in parts of Ulysses.  Wood is right to call Wallace’s passage unreadable, but that's the point.  For fiction to go on seeking “lifeness” it must risk more than Wood allows.  It must risk ceasing to be fiction. 

It must do so because at this moment in history what we think of as 'human' is at steadily eroding.  Wood is unwilling or unable to grapple with the changes taking place among writers and readers in the present age.  He doesn’t broach the subject in How Fiction Works, but in the past he has shown a dismissive attitude to the question.  In one article, Wood said that if readers really had evolved into a new world of post-human or post-literate imaginative sterility, they would not be reading the fiction of their predecessors.  Because they are, we can assume “the death of the subject” has been greatly exaggerated.  Logical, except the assertion that people in great numbers do read the fiction of bygone eras remains unproven.  Wood has written a primer for readers without asking who today's readers really are.  He is like a bishop who can expound on the Gospels with breathtaking eloquence but stumbles at the elementary question of whether or not God exists.  The human subject upon which his criticism depends—the reader, and his “inner life”—is a question mark, and has been for some time.

This is the major departure from Aspects of the Novel.  Forster admitted his readings relied on the constancy of human nature.  He explicitly asked if it really was immutable.  Though his answer was basically noncommittal, Forster seemed to lean toward the belief that human nature doesn’t change much (before finally allowing, in his tweedy, diffident way, that it might be possible).  However, in practice as a critic and a novelist, he proceeded as if certain that human nature was not, in fact, changeable.  Thus his journey through two hundred years of English literature has no regard for calendars.  In order to “exorcise that demon of chronology which is at present our enemy”, he imagines the authors in his study sitting together in one circular room, drolly speaking of the novels of Richardson and James as if the two authors were contemporaries. Wood borrows the same approach, to charming effect.  How Fiction Works contains delightful passages of crazy, bells-and-buzzers pinballing from Fielding to Roth to Dostoevsky to Hamsun to Cervantes, every quote a giddy wormhole through spacetime.  But the temporal equivalence is implied. Unlike Forster, Wood never directly addresses the question of human nature. 

Perhaps his fleet-footed dancing through the various ages of the novel is Wood’s tacit conception of human nature.  Social realities change but “lifeness” is eternal, near at hand to all genuine artists.  Tolstoy’s description of the railway carriage in Anna Karenin is a contemporary of Bellow’s description of Mr. Rappaport’s cigar because both passages are felt to be alive.  “Lifeness” brings together books scattered across time and space.  No novel is borne ceaselessly into the past so long as it floats on the “blue river of truth”.  Still, why should fiction survive as the primary transmitter of truth?  Why is it still important to us?  Is it because, as Forster suggested, the development of the novel is linked to our development as humans?  What if our development as humans leads us away from the novel?  One suspects Wood has answers for these questions, and good ones.  But they are nowhere to be found in How Fiction Works.  A book that starts out so winningly sputters and sinks to a maddeningly timid conclusion.  It is a lovely prelude to a more substantial inquiry into writers and readers, and if we are lucky Wood will one day write it.

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