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.