Erudite musings with philosophical bent
JAMES Wood’s brilliant career — though still in his early 40s, the English- born literary critic is a professor of critical practice at Harvard and a staff writer at The New Yorker — registers the rising cachet of high cultural capital in a pop cultural age.
It’s anyone’s guess whether, by the end of his career, Wood will have become a stronger critic than his illustrious mid 20th- century predecessors such as William Empson, F. R. Leavis and Edmund Wilson. But he is already an establishment figure enjoying the sheen of minor celebrity, bestriding the prestige end of the academy and literary journalism.
Yet his new analysis of fiction’s interior workings, though bright and occasionally brilliant, is not entirely convincing. Animated by a restless speculative energy and a bravura style, it aims to march literary criticism into an engagement with moral philosophy.
Wood explains in the introduction how his discussion of free indirect style will cascade into a consideration of point of view, and point of view into the perception of detail, then detail into character, ‘‘ and when I am talking about character I am talking about the real, which is at the bottom of my inquiries’’. Later in the essay he jettisons realism in favour of truth: a problematic concept given the universal acceptance of fiction’s relationship to truth and falsehood, and about as clearly defined in his extended essay as a Willem de Kooning portrait.
How Fiction Works By James Wood Jonathan Cape, 192pp, $ 39.95 Book Self: The Reader as Writer and the Writer as Critic By C. K. Stead Auckland University Press, 329pp, $ 49.95
Wood seems to have written the book in part as an answer to the pseudo- philosophical turn of literary studies during the past decade or more, which has tended to bully the twin concepts of truth and realism as part of its project against Western epistemology and in part as a novelist’s meditation on what works in fiction.
He concludes by endorsing the ‘‘ desire to be truthful about life, the desire to produce art that sees ‘ the way things are’, as a universal literary motive and project, the broad central language of the novel and drama: what ( Henry) James in What Maisie Knew calls ‘ the firm ground of fiction, through which indeed there curled the blue river of truth’.’’ James’s metaphor puts the point nicely. But it’s not altogether clear whether some of the great moments in Western literature — the ghost scene from Hamlet , Pip’s encounter with Miss Haversham, Raskolnikov’s dream — owe their enduring potency to the blue river of truth or the whitewater of invention.
Wood further insists that ‘‘ real literature’’ involves a resistance to literary convention, so that it is not enough for a great work to ‘‘ strike us with its truth’’; it must also ‘‘ shake habit’s house to its foundations’’. Realism, having earlier been ejected in favour of truth, is now readmitted and newly defined as ‘‘ lifeness’’, a dreadful neologism.
How Fiction Works deserves a wide reader-
ship and a long life in print because it touches on — rather than resolves — important questions about the moral and psychological value of literature. Wood is a passionate evangelist for literary fiction and a quite masterful critic; a worthy foil for his touchstone authors Tolstoy, Chekhov, Dickens and James. As a long- time admirer of his work, however, I found this performance less assured than the single- focus essays and reviews where he seems, paradoxically, to have more time and more room to move.
How Fiction Works aims for a kind of Platonic ascent from the concrete to the metaphysical; from considerations of literary style to moral philosophy. And Wood is less convincing as a philosopher than as a literary critic. He cites brilliant moral philosopher Bernard Williams in support of his view that the novel does the work of philosophy by accounting for our ‘‘ moral fabric’’. True of the realist novel, perhaps, and of nonfiction narrative genres, but not of all fiction.
In his reading of Gustave Flaubert’s Sentimental Education , Wood labours a pretty conventional point about the artificiality of realism. As in a film, he argues, ‘‘ 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.’’ This is just chatter. Flaubert certainly aimed in this groundbreaking work to dissect the 1848 revolution. But the adverb ‘‘ savagely’’ is all wrong for Flaubert, a painstakingly controlled stylist. It’s not the only point in the book where the style guru’s prose shows signs of haste.
The symbiotic relationship between philosophical realism and literary realism was explored 50 years ago by scholar Ian Watt, who noted how ‘‘ the adaptation of prose style to give an air of complete authenticity is closely related to one of the distinctive methodological emphases of philosophical realism’’. Watt’s classic account of realism’s connection to social and intellectual history, The Rise of the Novel , makes an interesting companion piece to Wood’s more performative inquiry into ‘‘ the real’’ and its rendering through fiction. On the whole, though, Wood’s pastiche lacks the architectural solidity needed to support his weighty ambitions.
New Zealand author, poet and critic C. K. Stead confesses in his new collection Book Self , that when the writing ‘‘ seems to slow up and become sluggish’’ he turns at once to Dickens or Shakespeare for an infusion of creative energy. The effect can be like a shot in the arm.
Stead’s insight into the creative process reminds us that even the most sophisticated readers turn to literature for reasons that are not easily distilled into an ethic or an aesthetic. It’s the same for the common reader. From the language of As You Like It , Pride and Prejudice , or The Old Curiosity Shop , we hope to find not so much lifeness — Wood’s term — as liveliness.
Stead is another fine critic whose work is better represented elsewhere. The focus of this selection is unashamedly parochial and the tone resolutely egotistical. The abiding impression of Book Self is that of a critic who rarely seems to know when to get out of the way. A beautiful obituary for Janet Frame, psychologically illuminating and sensitive to her work and its milieu, begins with four instances of the first- person singular in the first sentence. In an obituary!
But with all critics, as with all novelists, there is something to endure, and readers who can put up with, or skirt around, the intrusive authorial self will find a fine stylist with a poet’s ear who is just as good in a reflective and expository, as in a critical, mode.