Debaser

I could tell from Daniel Green’s review of How Fiction Works, the new book by James Wood, that I would have some issues with it. Of course, I read a lot of books I predict I will disagree with or dislike for whatever reason; I like to be sporting like that. Wood even lets us know as early as his introduction that his argument “is that fiction is both artifice and verisimilitude.” But last night when I started it, I was chugging happily along through his first chapter, on narration.

Wood does a wonderful job, I think, of discussing free indirect style here. He quotes a passage from Henry James’ What Maisie Knew and explains not how one ought to read it, but how it works that the chosen words produce a certain, largely natural effect in even the non-close reader. Not all casual readers will be interested in a logical dissection like this, but the discussion is accessible and, to my mind, very accurately descriptive while not falling into prescription. I was pleased.

But then, Wood managed to use one of the few phrases almost guaranteed to make me throw a book across the room: “debased language.” In his analysis of David Foster Wallace’s story “The Suffering Channel” Wood admits that the free indirect style here is the same as the “village chorus” found in Chekhov, but this time instead of representing the speech of wholesome Russian peasants it is the “ruined argot” caused by “the saturation of language by mass media,” which forces an author to use “mangled language,” “corrupted language we all know too well, and are in fact quite desperate to escape.”

Ugh. Mr. Wood, this is not how language works. We all like to be the curmudgeon complaining about those darn kids with their text messages and those awful blogs with their bad grammar, but there is simply no rational basis for making value judgments about which dialects are “debased” and which are somehow richer and closer to some heavenly ideal language.

Wood judges DFW’s problem to be, despite the ugly prose, his aestheticism, because of his “strenuous display of style.” And of course, this is exactly what Wood has a problem with and where his prescriptivism truly begins. The novel is meant to be a vehicle of verisimilitude only; realism is the only true goal of fiction, and psychological realism the highest such goal. How boring.

Most of what I read is realism. And I get a lot of enjoyment out of Henry James et al. Picking apart and understanding where that enjoyment comes from is also a pleasure for me. But I detest this kind of exclusivity, as though all novelists must be embarked on the same project, and it must be the same project we’ve been working on for centuries. As Green puts it, Wood contends that

the art of fiction is now settled, all of the possible aesthetic innovations the form might offer already achieved. If you want to read the best that fiction has to offer, Wood’s book clearly enough implies, stick with the line of Anglo-European fiction extending from Henry James to Henry Green. If you want to be an esteemed writer, do what Dostoevsky does, what D.H. Lawrence does, what Virginia Woolf and Saul Bellow do.

There is no room for those who

want to transform our perception of fiction as the effort to depict “people” and “life” to one that can encompass that goal (with many provisos) but can also capture the reader’s attention in other ways, ways more responsive to the possibilities of fiction as imaginative manipulation of language and form.

I will, of course, continue reading and I’m sure there will be more of value to take away. But I doubt it will relieve me of my love for those “vulgar stylists.”

4 comments to Debaser

  • Well, I don’t think the description of Wood as a prescriber of realism is accurate. Neither does he – see the 2nd comment here: http://nymag.com/daily/entertainment/2008/07/is_new_yorker_critic_james_woo.html

    Maybe there’s something he miswrote in the book that leads people this way. I’ve not read this book, but I can’t see how anyone could get this idea from, for example, his pieces on Hrabal or Sebald.

  • I’ve always enjoyed his criticism in the past, and while I stand by my complaints in this post, I think you are, strange as it may seem, right about the miswriting.

    He does seem prescriptive toward the end of the chapter on narration, pretty explicitly cautioning against a certain kind of postmodern riot of pure style. But after that chapter…description only. It really is an account of how (a very large proportion of) fiction works, and a good account, and has been a great read.

    There were a couple silly comments about how much better French is than English—the book is about 1/3 love affair with Flaubert—but other than that I have no complaints. I just finished the chapter on “Language” and there Wood is clearly descriptive, wonderfully comprehensible, and, as he says, reveling joyfully in style. It’s great.

    I probably won’t finish until tomorrow and will probably post something more on Friday, but it’s been strange. I started out liking it, then taking serious though brief issue with it, and then completely won over. I’m considering that Wood’s use of highly charged language when it comes to David Foster Wallace’s style is at fault. In any event I would highly recommend this, and thanks for pointing me to that comment.

  • Update: as I suspected, I won’t finish until sometime this afternoon, but I do think that toward the end he begins to give this impression again, by defending himself against Gass and Barthes and strenuously holding that realism is not “a genre” but “a central impulse in fiction-making.” I suspect he means one central impulse—but it does begin to sound exclusionary again.

  • […] 15, 2008 · No Comments James Wood has been accused in several places (including here) of prescriptivism in his recent book, How Fiction Works. He has denied the charge, but some of its […]

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