Walter Kirn on How Fiction Works

This week has been a bit Wood-focused but I’m sure this will be the last such post. The New York Times has a review up today, though, of How Fiction Works that is generally sympathetic to my own view. In fact, it even makes the same allusion at one point:

Take his disquisition on detail, which comes down first to asserting its importance, then to questioning its all-importance, and then, after serving up a list of some of his very favorite fictional details, to defining the apt, exquisite detail much as a judge once defined obscenity: as something he knows when he sees it.

Walter Kirn seems to have the same ideas about Wood’s prescribing realism as everyone else does, too:

His essential point is this: Novels and short stories succeed or fail according to their capacity (a capacity that has progressed over the centuries rather like the march of science) to represent, affectingly and credibly, the actual workings of the human mind as it interacts with the real world.

That sentence is, I think, an excellent summation of much of the work.

On Why Writers Write and Why Readers Read (ignored by Wood, as Ducks and Drakes so well pointed out):

For him, that matter seems settled. They do it to perfect the union of Wood’s vaunted “artifice and verisimilitude,” two virtues he treats as though carved on a stone tablet, and thereby to promote the cause of civilization; not, as is so frequently the case outside the leathery environs of the private library, to escape the constrictions of civilization, redraw its boundaries, decalcify its customs, or revive the writer’s or reader’s own spirits by dancing on its debris.

It’s a very good review. The Times’ Paper Cuts blog on Wood here and here, as well.

How Fiction Works by James Wood

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 truth lingers.

Most of How Fiction Works is an explanation of just that—Wood has written, allegedly for “the common reader,” an account of everything from narrative through detail and character to language. Of course, it’s highly debatable whether the common reader will be interested in the inner workings of fiction.

But for those who enjoy unweaving the rainbow, the book is extremely accessible and just about all of Wood’s close readings are rewarding. It begins to grate a little how much of the book is an ode to Flaubert, especially when it leads Wood to say completely foolish things about the English and French languages (English is but French’s wan cousin; Barthes couldn’t understand realism because of the passé simple), but this is forgivable. The unpacking of a single sentence from Sabbath’s Theater is delicious, and the analysis of Raskolnikov’s psychology excellent. And the entire chapter on language is very clear and well-done, though some of those common readers may be less taken with Wood’s tastes. He rightly disdains the all-too-common complaint that characters are often not “likable,” and has hardly anything to say about plot, except that the use of it to drive a novel is a cheap and low technique.

And after all this enlightening descriptive account of what goes on between the lines of realist fiction, Wood comes to his last chapter, “Truth, Convention, Realism,” where he finishes his argument that “fiction is both artifice and verisimilitude.” To charges of prescriptivism, he has responded:

my new book is precisely not a prescriptive guide to writing one kind of book (it praises the novel as the virtuoso of exceptionalism); it is precisely not a defense of ‘the high realist novel,’ whatever that is (the chapter on character defends a postmodern idea of a kind of ‘character of gaps’); and to say that I champion the fiction of character and dialogue over ‘stylistic flourishes’ is almost the opposite of the truth. As almost every word of criticism I have ever written attests, I pay the greatest attention to ‘stylistic flourishes,’ examine them, and revel joyfully in them. They are everything.

All of this is true, unarguably so, based on a reading of How Fiction Works. But all the same, certain things are roundly condemned: aestheticism (though Wood could be accused of this himself), any nonmimetic account of fiction (à la Barthes and Gass—whom he seems at times to misconstrue), “commercial realism,” meaningless detail (but not detail that brings “lifeness” to a work), suspense, and dead convention. Certainly there is bad writing in the world, but not everything excluded from Wood’s account of fiction falls into that category, and some complaints are based on distaste for large swathes of fiction (e.g., most postmodernism) while others seem to be of the “I know it when I see it” variety (e.g., Updike is condemned for “writing over” his character, while Bellow is specifically praised despite doing the same). He may not encourage “one type of book,” but he certainly propounds a view that realism is not “a genre” but “a central convention in fiction-making”—and by “a central convention” he does seems to imply that it’s the only really worthwhile one.


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.”