Thursday, 15 May 2008

James Wood - How Fiction Works


This is an imperfect yet, in sections, brilliant little book that I’ll be recommending to future creative writing students. Though it’s particularly interesting to me because I’ve been trying to work out in which specific ways literary and genre writing differ, this isn’t necessarily the sort of book that will be useful to you if you’re in the unfortunate position of having to write an essay on Baudrillard or Foucault and literature. James Wood is a professor of criticism at Harvard but nevertheless proceeds with old-fashioned ‘close readings’ of texts. But he is also one of the most interesting literary critics around at the moment. I like his reviews because he takes an aesthetic view of literature rather than bowing to all the theoretical approaches which - please God - the academy will very soon tire of. He knows what makes novels good, what makes writing work, and he knows how to explain it.

So, drawing on examples from his own library, Wood provides evidence about the importance of the ‘irrelevant detail’, the significance of describing aspects of character like facial expression, without always explaining why. He also favours what he calls a ‘strategic opacity’ of motivation and points towards examples of actions in Shakespeare that other writers might feel tempted to explain (why does Lear test his daughters? Why can’t Hamlet avenge? Why does Iago ruin Othello’s life? I couldn’t help noticing that these are all questions that the reader or viewer wonders about. One source of pleasure in Shakespeare are the debates you can have afterwards about problems like these.)

Wood also takes a devastating swipe at certain Amazon reviewers (I can think of a few examples of the type!) who display a ‘contagion of moral niceness’ in criticising characters when they can’t identify with them. Rather than looking for Forsterian ‘round’ characters, to Wood there are no particular rules for novels in general but he is clear that what makes one fail is when it fails to teach readers how to adapt to its own conventions. He’s interesting on the point of ‘flat’ characters (borrowing the terms round and flat from Forster while at the same time questioning their usefulness as tools of criticism), observing that some of fictions most memorable characters (for example, Mr Casaubon) are also flat.

On language, Wood is perhaps at his most interesting. He describes the difference between ‘slick genre prose’ (le Carre is offered as an example) and ‘really interesting writing’ as the former having only one ‘register’ or way of saying something and then goes into particular detail about what this means. He approves of certain mixed metaphors (not when they are mixed cliches!) and notes that metaphors can be at their most interesting when they are close to the opposite of the thing you are trying to describe - because this adds to a feeling of estrangement. It makes the writing more interesting. He uses examples from Virginia Woolf to illustrate.

Wood aims this book at readers and writers, and I’m both, but read the book as a writer – with something to learn. What, in particular? Well, I’m not sure. What does a contemporary writer want to achieve? Although I think Wood could let himself go and look more closely at plot – plot might be juvenile, but isn’t literature essentially for enjoyment? - Wood is particularly interesting where he takes issue with the idea that realism is tired. Although he shows particular styles of it as it ‘decomposes, flattens itself into a genre’, he changes terminology to talk of ‘truth’ rather than ‘realism’ (although observing that it’s actually an even more problematic term) to discuss a ‘lifeness’ that exists when writers resist falling into convention and continue to try to write interestingly. My one serious criticism of the book is that so many of his examples come from texts of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, when conventional realism was at is peak – and not yet conventional. Surely there are contemporary writers whose work might also provide examples of the ‘lifeness’ he commends, but who are they? (Not Rushdie or Updike, that’s certain, Wood’s demolition jobs on the two of them are legendary).

Not flawless, but well worth reading.

1 comment:

Dara said...

Thanks for writing this.