19 January 2009

Wood, James. How Fiction Works. New York: FSG, 2008.

Let me try in text to set the tone of my voice for you, or to place myself in a hypothetical setting in which what I'm about to say will come to you with the appropriate affect. Let this blog be for a second a church basement somewhere and this entry specifically can then serve as a nightly AA meeting I'm attending for the first time, on my own, because while I don't know whether I should be here I also don't know whether I shouldn't. The moderator or leader or captain or whatever asks if anyone is at the blog entry for the first time, and I raise my hand and am invited to stand and speak, and so I do:

I write realist fiction.

Lots of times I'm able to hold onto this as a source of pride, in that I "believe in" realism and what it can accomplish—what it has accomplished for me as a lifelong reader. But lots of other times I understand it as a limitation. I do the best I can, and I can't write anything other that realism. Not with much confidence. When I step up to the plate, so to speak, it's a swing and miss. Given the chance, I'd have a young man wake up one morning and find he'd metamorphosed into a shoebox, or envision a future where Quebecois separatists wheel around on unicycles.

James Wood's book, then, was very good for me to read. Not that he has anything disparaging to say about nonrealist fiction—to the contrary, any fiction that does the work of creating life, in all its known and unknown manifestations, is what he's trying to uncover here—but he's very good at showing how difficult and how rewarding is the attempt of building a character and getting a reader to feel herself inside that character's consciousness.

Wood is smart to bury his chapters on language and dialogue in the middle of his book, because such are the things it's the easiest to get right. I've probably written about this before, but the easiest thing to do in a fiction workshop is go to work on what's been written with a toolbox of techniques. Writing prettily takes only a good ear, which might be the first writer-body-part that develops in full (consider Orwell's stages of self-development as a writer; after sheer ego, wanting to craft perfected prose was his most rudimentary desire).

But what do you do when all the techniques are in place in a story and the prose is crafted and the story is simply boring, or the characters pose and perform more than they live and breathe? Such stories seem to evince a lack of psychology, or maybe philosophy. There's a often palpable sense in great novels that their writers know not just characters but people, humans, so well that throughout our reading we're forced constantly to go "Ah" and "Oh" like we do when fireworks explode.

The best chapters in this regard might be "A Brief History of Consciousness", where Wood traces the Bible's complete refusal of its readers' engagement in characters' minds, through Shakespeare's clunky soliloquies, to the novel (Flaubert, mostly) where we get full accounts of the way people think; and "Sympathy and Complexity", where he tries to uncover the ways authors get us to extend our sympathies to people who don't even exist, and how this practice enables us to do the same to those who do. And then this final paragraph, which I'll quote in full:
Realism, seen broadly as truthfulness to the way things are, cannot be mere verisimilitude, cannot be mere lifelikeness, or lifesameness, but what I must call lifeness: life on the page, life brought to different life by the highest artistry. And it cannot be a genre; instead, it makes other forms of fiction seem like genres. For realism of this kind—lifeness—is the origin. It teaches everyone else; it schools its own truants: it is what allows magical realism, hysterical realism, fantasy, science fiction, even thrillers, to exist. It is nothing like as naive as its opponents charge; almost all the great twentieth-century realist novels also reflect on their own making, and are full of artifice. All the greatest realists, from Austen to Alice Munro, are at the same time great formalists. But this will be unceasingly difficult: for the writer has to act as if the available novelistic methods are continually about to turn in mere convention and so has to try to outwit that inevitable aging. The true writer, that free servant of life, is one who must always be acting as if life were a category beyond anything the novel had yet grasped; as if life itself were always on the verge of becoming conventional. (italics mine)
We've all read realist fiction that is dead on every page, and then we extend this deadness to the genre as a whole. The hard part, Wood says, is to accomplish all that realism can in a way that seems fresh and new, and it's such a hard task that it's very tempting to toss realism out altogether, and allow surrealism or lyricism to stand in for novels' pursuit of novelty.

Or maybe everyone just writes what he can. If anything, read this book for the great skewering he gives Updike. This plus James Wolcott's recent skewering in Vanity Fair gives me high hopes for Updike's complete absence from the canon by the time I'm his age.


Blogger christopher higgs said...

I share your hope for a future canon minus Updike.

Have you read Roman Jakobson's essay "On Realism in Art"?


It's a pretty good one.

I've been reluctant to pick up this Wood book, but you've made it sound interesting.

10:15 PM  
Blogger Dusty said...

I haven't read this, but I've now bookmarked it. Thanks for the heads-up.

8:24 AM  
Blogger ryan call said...

i read this entire post thinking you were talking about jim scott

9:13 AM  

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