"BAD PAPER: The Bursting of the Fiction Bubble"

read it here.

December 28, 2008

“To dilute and obscure”: Again on James Wood & Saramago

In an earlier post I dissected Wood’s review of José Saramago’s Death with Interruptions to show how Wood struggles to domesticate the Portuguese leftist’s fiction.  I pointed out, for instance, how Wood dishonestly misrepresents Saramago’s work as an endorsement of the doctrine of Original Sin and “fallen” human nature – the ideology that humans are, to use Wood’s own sordid phrase, “natural-born utopia-killers.”

Here is a translated excerpt of a recent post from Saramago’s own blog, in which the eighty six-year old writer reflects on the very doctrine that Wood seeks to foist upon his work:

Some people say that skepticism is an infirmity of old age, an ailment of recent times, a sclerosis of the will. I don't dare to say this diagnosis is completely wrong, but I will say that it would be too comfortable to try to escape all difficulties through this door, as if the actual state of the world were a simple consequence of the old being old... The dreams of the young have never succeeded, at least until now, in making the world any better, and the rejuvenated bile of the old has never been enough to make it worse. Clearly the world -- poor world -- is not to blame for the evils afflicting it. That which we call the state of the world is the state of the unlucky humanity that we are, inevitably composed of old people who were young, young people who will be old, others who are not young and are not yet old. Whose fault? I hear it said that everyone bears the blame, that nobody can be presumed innocent, but I find that these sort of declarations, which appear to distribute justice evenly, are no more than spurious recurring mutations of the so-called original sin, which serve only to dilute and obscure, in an imaginary collective guilt, the responsibilities of the authentically culpable. The state, not of the world, but of life.

The translation is by Jeremy at Readin, the emphasis is mine. 

“To dilute and obscure,” indeed.

December 21, 2008

Jonathan Culler Reviews "How Fiction Works"!

“Identifying narrators is one of the primary ways of naturalizing fiction.  The convention that in a text the narrator speaks to his reader acts as support to interpretive operations which deal with the odd or apparently insignificant.  In so far as the novel is, as George Eliot says, ‘a faithful account of men and things as they have mirrored themselves in my mind’, the reader may treat anything anomalous as the effect of the narrator’s vision or cast of mind.  In the case of first-person narration, choices for which the reader can find no other explanation may be read as excesses which display the narrator’s individuality and as symptoms of his obsessions.  But even when there is no narrator who describes himself we can explain almost any aspect of a text by postulating a narrator whose character the elements in question are designed to reflect or reveal.  Thus, Robbe-Grillet’s La Jalousie may be recuperated, as Bruce Morrissette has done, by postulating an obsessed narrator with paranoiac suspicions so as to explain certain fixations of description; Dans le labyrinthe can be naturalized by reading it as the speech of a narrator suffering from amnesia.  The most incoherent text could be explained by assuming that it is the speech of a delirious narrator.  Such operations can, of course, be applied to a wide range of modern texts, but the most radical works set out to make this kind of recuperation an arbitrary imposition of sense and to show the reader how dependent his reading is on models of intelligibility.  As Stephen Heath has admirably demonstrated, such novels act by becoming thoroughly banal when naturalized and showing the reader at what cost he has purchased intelligibility (The Nouveau Roman, pp. 137-45).  In Barthes’s words, writing becomes truly writing only when it prevents one from answering the question, ‘who is speaking?’

However, we have developed powerful strategies to prevent texts from becoming writing, and in cases where we should find it difficult to postulate a single narrator we can appeal to that modern literary convention, made explicit by Henry James and the many critics who have followed his lead, of limited point of view.  If we cannot compose the text by attributing everything to a single narrator we can break it down into scenes or episodes and give meaning to details by treating them as what was noticed by a character who was present at the time.  This convention may be seen as a last-ditch strategy for humanizing writing and making personality the focal point of the text; and indeed it is noteworthy that the authors who are most frequently read in this way are those like Flaubert who attain an impersonality which makes it difficult to attribute the text to a characterizable narrator. 

R.J. Sherrington, who is one of the more extreme advocates of this type of recuperation, tells us for instance that the passages in Madame Bovary which describe Charles’s visits to the farm where he first meets Emma employ a limited point of view in that ‘only details which force themselves upon Charles’s awareness are mentioned.’  Entering the kitchen, he notices that the shutters are closed; ‘naturally, this fact draws attention to the patterns of light filtering through the shutters and coming down the chimney to strike ashes in the fireplace’.  Since Emma is standing near the fireplace, ‘then he sees Emma and notices only one thing about her: “little drops of perspiration on her bare shoulders”’.  How characteristic of Charles!  Full of admiration for Flaubert’s artistry in recounting just what Charles noticed, Sherrington neglects to explain what we are to deduce about Charles’s character from the fact that between the sentences describing the patterns of light and Emma there occurs one which displays considerable interest in the behaviour and death of flies: ‘Flies, on the table, crawled up and down the sides of glasses which had been used and buzzed as they drowned themselves at the bottom, in the dregs of cider.’  If we try to attribute this notation to Charles, we are engaged in recuperating details by a circular argument: flies are described because they are what Charles noticed; we know that they are what Charles noticed because they are what is described.

This is, in fact, simply another version of the representational justification which few sophisticated readers of novels would now allow themselves to employ: that a particular passage is justified or explained by the fact that it describes the world.  This is so weak a determination – everything vraisemblable is by this criterion equally justified – that it has fallen out of serious use; and the concept of limited point of view offers a determination which is almost equally weak.  The proof of its insufficiency is that when discussing novels like What Maisie Knew which derive from the explicit project of ‘giving it all, the whole situation surrounding her, but of giving it only through the occasions and connexions of her proximity and her attention’, we are not content to argue  that sentences are justified because they tell us what Maisie knew but require that they contribute to patterns of knowledge and form a drama of innocence.  The identification of narrators is an important interpretive strategy, but it cannot itself take one very far.”

—Jonathan Culler, from Structuralist Poetics:  Structuralism, Linguistics, and the Study of Literature (1975)


I’m pretty much in agreement with everything in the above, except for that last assertion.  Can’t take one very far?  On the contrary, I know one critic – our latter-day R.J. Sherrington – it has taken all the way to the New Yorker.

But wait – Culler didn’t mean professionally, did he.  He meant intellectually.

December 15, 2008

James and the Giant Sentence

If a novel isn’t an instance of domestic fiction to begin with, yet James Wood needs to give it a positive review, then he has got to find ways to domesticate it.  Books can always be cast into the outer darkness, but sometimes the craftier course is to see if they can’t be neutered, de-clawed, housebroken.  Domestic fiction, in other words, doesn’t necessarily need to take place in the parlor or kitchen, doesn’t need to confine itself solely to the eternal verities of the holy family or the watered-down religious nostalgia of humanist “consciousness” (although it helps, of course).  No, domestic fiction, it turns out, is ultimately a way of seeing, a way of reading.  Think of it this way:  If Marcel Duchamp can take a urinal and make it into a work of art, then James Wood can at least perform that hey-presto in reverse, and turn a work of art into the humble receptacle of his piss.

We’ve seen an example of this operation quite recently in Wood’s review of José Saramago’s Death with Interruptions.  Saramago could hardly be accused of writing domestic fiction, yet Wood expresses a profound esteem for the Portuguese novelist’s works.  In order to give the novelist this seal of approval, however, the reviewer must struggle to subdue a very basic feature of Saramago’s writing, the long sentence: 

Some of the more significant writing of the past thirty years has taken delight in the long, lawless sentence—think of Thomas Bernhard, Bohumil Hrabal, W. G. Sebald, Roberto Bolaño—but no one sounds quite like Saramago. He has an ability to seem wise and ignorant at the same time, as if he were not really narrating the stories he narrates. Often, he uses what could be called unidentified free indirect style—his fictions sound as if they were being told not by an author but by, say, a group of wise and somewhat garrulous old men, sitting down by the harbor in Lisbon, having a smoke, one of whom is the writer himself. This community is fond of truisms, proverbs, clichés.  […]  These platitudes are neither quite validated nor disowned; they are ironized by the obvious gap that exists between the knowing postmodern Nobel laureate writing his fictions and the person or persons seemingly narrating those fictions.

The run-on style is an important part of that irony: the breathlessness lends a sense of chatty unruliness, as if different people were breaking in to have their say. A single long sentence often seems to have been written by different voices, and the unpunctuated welter allows for sly twists and turns, as when a cliché catches itself in the act of being a cliché, and atones: “Such a man, apart from rare exceptions which have no place in this story, will never be more than a poor devil, it’s odd that we always say poor devil and never poor god.” In the sentence about the people’s early euphoria when death is suspended [quoted earlier in Wood’s review], notice that a poetic image for the Grim Reaper (“parca’s creaking scissors”) gives way to a more ordinary image (“sealed orders to open at the hour of our death”) and then to a frank, weary cliché (“this vale of tears known as earth”), and that this progression allows for the simultaneous presence of the writer, who has his images, and the people he is writing about, who have theirs. And a magical exchange occurs: by the time we reach the end of that sentence about death, the fancy mythical image seems somehow much less powerful than the most banal image.

In Wood’s review, on the contrary, the only “magic” that is being practiced is the attempt to give his reviewer’s clichés and banalizations some kind of stature, even as they reduce Saramago’s novel to their own dimensions.  Peel away the tinsel and you can see that Wood is trying to get Saramago’s sentences to cough up yet another humanist “novel of consciousness.”

There comes a point, however, where he almost gets it right; when he says that at times Saramago’s sentences sound “as if he were not really narrating the stories he narrates.”  What Wood doesn’t want to say, what he in fact cannot say, is that it is precisely this sentence-form – what I call the baroque sentence – and its decentered narration that show Saramago and some of the other writers on Wood’s list to be post-humanist writers.  The baroque sentence practiced by writers such as Saramago is indeed a supple instrument and can do many things, but the one thing that it has in common among its practitioners is the priority it assigns to writing itself over any so-called depictions of “consciousness.”  Saramago’s sentences are not, in a sense, utterances at all, at least not in the conventional sense that they are caused by consciousness.  Rather, consciousness is their effect.  Human subjects are constituted by discourse, written into being, you might say, by discourses that precede them.  Some writers – I think Saramago is one – might stress the social and historical nature of these discourses; other writers (such as Bernhard) will emphasize the irreducible alterity of writing itself, but in either case there’s little shelter for the “old ego of the character,” as Lawrence (a great post-humanist of an earlier phase) called it.  Even authors themselves – this is the pathos but also the freeing affirmation of Saramago’s The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis – are epiphenomenal.  Saramago includes a very telling (or is it killing?) joke about this in Death with Interruptions, an episode in which death’s writing style turns out to be like that which runs through Saramago’s own books.  Wood, in his review, seizes on the passage in order to turn it ass-end up, into an affirmation of the trite expression, “the storyteller’s godlike powers,” the author as Authority.

After acknowledging that Saramago’s sentences sound “as if he were not really narrating the stories he narrates,” Wood tries to recuperate or naturalize this by recourse to the idea of the chorus.  Thus if Saramago isn’t telling us the stories, it is only because they are narrated by “a group of wise and somewhat garrulous old men, sitting down by the harbor in Lisbon, having a smoke . . .”  Whew!  Dodged a bullet, there.  Wood wants to talk about how Saramago’s style recasts the debased coinage of clichés, but he can do so only by palming off on us this clichéd and deeply sentimental image (if it were France, no doubt the old men would be playing boules).  Of course, the sentences do have a choric function; it is typical of Saramago’s prose to “sample” the various social discourses that constitute a community (see for example the use of newspaper discourse in The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis), but always in a way that amplifies the extent to which human subjectivity is historical and articulated out of thoroughly transpersonal materials.  For Wood, on the other hand, this sampling can only be explained as “different people . . . breaking in to have their say,” an explanation that could be laughed off for simply being trivial and boring if it were not simultaneously so revealing of a deeply felt, indeed almost desperately felt, ideological requirement.  One way or another, there must always be a speaker, a controlling consciousness; consciousness must never unclench its grip on writing.  Perhaps it’s a sort of recognition – expressed as hysterical resistance – that otherwise writing would subsume consciousness. 

After a few paragraphs, Wood quits this unequal struggle with Saramago’s particular appropriation of the baroque sentence and tries to neutralize him on what he hopes will be a more convivial terrain, that of theme, the “message” of the novel.  Yes, it’s banal, but Wood likes to move in this direction in many of his reviews so that he can conclude them on a note of resounding bathos.  Here it is a question of putting words in Saramago’s mouth: 

If eternal life could not possibly work on earth, why is heavenly eternity so ardently to be desired? Perhaps it is because we desperately hope that Heaven will be the same as earth but also very different, given that man ruins Edens.  For Saramago . . . the problem is not just that humans are natural-born utopia-killers; it is that eternity itself —life forever uninterrupted—seems unbearable.   

Notice that “man ruins Edens” and “humans are natural-born utopia-killers” are presented as straightforward restatements of Saramago’s beliefs, as derived from the text of his novel.  Is Wood actually trying to suggest that Saramago – the anti-clericalist, the atheist, the communist (a fact Wood never gets around to mentioning) – endorses some version of the theological doctrine of the Fall?  And sure enough, to underline his point Wood makes a tendentious digression into another Saramago novel, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ:  Suddenly,” writes Wood, “Jesus is cursed by a form of original sin . . .”  Ah.  If there’s any heterodoxy here, it’s that he who was supposedly born without sin turns out to be just another lowly natural-born utopia-killer like the rest of us.  The main point, though, is that we’re fallen and we can’t get up. 

So there you have it, Saramago’s Death with Interruptions is a novel of consciousness with a sound basis in acceptable doctrine.  Of course it is neither, but the whole point is the spin, or, as Wood puts it in How Fiction Works,

Realism, seen broadly as truthfulness to the way things are, cannot be mere verisimilitude, cannot be mere lifelikeness, or life-sameness, but what I must call lifeness: life on the page, life brought to different life by the highest artistry.

“Lifeness” – how similar it is, really, to that after all not-inimitable neologism coined by another journalist of a stature and integrity one or two orders of magnitude higher than James Wood’s, Stephen Colbert:  “Truthiness.”

December 13, 2008

"Speaks true who speaks shadow"

Reading John Felstiner’s remarkable Paul Celan:  Poet, Survivor, Jew,* I came across the following passage about a review of Celan’s 1952 collection, Mohn und Gedächtnis (“Poppy and Remembrance”).  It recounts an episode from Celan’s life that illustrates how a reviewer can subject a book to ideological distortion and even marshal it into the service of contemporary political agendas – or amnesias – while pretending to talk about its strictly “literary” qualities.  The review, writes Felstiner, appeared in a 1954 issue of “the respected monthly Merkur”:

Billing itself “A German journal for European thinking,” it ran essays by Buber, Adorno, Toynbee, Jaspers, Eliot, Habermas, fiction by Beckett, and later, in 1954, some poems by Celan.  The April issue featured Gottfried Benn, Germany’s senior poet, whose ideas on poetry as artifice – not to mention his early Nazism – did not sit well with Celan.  The issue also contained the review “Five Young Poets.”

Hans Egon Holthusen, an influential poet and critic, devoted six pages to Mohn und Gedächtnis, welcoming a talent that “translates certain principles of modern French lyric into the German language . . . Here one sees language taking fire not from an object confronting it, but from itself.”  Readers of this review came upon one word more than any other, Phantasie – “imagination,” “fantasy,” “fancy.”  In Celan’s writing Holthusen saw “fantastic associations” and “unqualified arbitrary lyric imagination” working on “the reader’s fancy.”

Holthusen did mete out praise, citing Celan’s paradoxes – “Blacker in black, I am more naked . . . a hanged man strangles the rope” – which “mock the complacency of logical thinking, mobilizing dream truth against reality.”  Yet this review could still be describing something by the author of “Jabberwocky” or “A Child’s Garden of Verses.”  Though Celan’s volume ends by saying “Render me bitter / Number me among the almonds” (from a poem that Holthusen had anthologized), the critic dwelt on “playful freedom,” “self-inspired, purely lexical configurations,” “not meaning but form,” “absolutely musical effects,” “Mallarmé . . . Mallarmé . . .  Mallarmé.”  Again, as with Group 47, Celan became a whipping boy in the dispute between “engaged” and “pure” poetry.  Admittedly Mohn und Gedächtnis harbored plenty of fantastic imagery and verbal music, but this critique disengaged them from their basis in exile, loss, and mass death.

To Holthusen’s credit, he closed his review by celebrating “Todesfuge,” in which “instinct and suffering coincide with the kairos [opportune time] of a great motif.”  Yet, designating the Jewish catastrophe with “kairos,” a term steeped in Christian theology – “when the fullness of time was come, God sent forth his son” (Gal. 4:4) – betrays a careless ear.

Celan has “mastered” a technique of repetition, says Holthusen, disregarding the use of “master” in "Todesfuge."  He is congratulated for “singing” a ghastly event, even as the commandant tells his Jews to “sing up and play.”  The poet has “overcome” a staggering theme – here Holthusen’s verb is bewältigen, as if Celan were part of Germany’s Vergangenheitsbewältigung (“overcoming the past”).  This gruesome theme “can escape history’s bloody chamber of horrors to rise into the ether of pure poetry.”  But it was the Jews in Celan’s poem who rose into ether, never the poem; not “Todesfuge” but its German readers who wanted to “escape history’s bloody chamber of horrors.”  Thus they apotheosized Celan’s poem: “one of the grandest poems for our time,” said Holthusen.

According to Felstiner, Celan “felt used within Germany’s cultural recovery after the Third Reich,” and in response to this review wrote the poem “Sprich auch du” (“Speak you too”), which ended with the line “Speaks true who speaks shadow.”  Holthusen left the shadow out of his account of Mohn und Gedächtnis, and thus did not speak true.

Holthusen grotesquely enlisted Celan’s poetry in the ideological project of German auto-exoneration.  The reviewer’s rhetoric appeared to celebrate the achievement of a Jewish poet, but did so in a way that swept national complicity under the rug – or rather evaporated it into the air that was still cloudy with human smoke.  But the smoke had been alchemized into the filigree of Art, courtesy of Holthusen’s construal of Celan’s work, so German readers could enjoy it with a clear conscience and even a little self-congratulation.   

I wish to make two points about this.  The first is that Holthusen need not have been conscious of his whitewashing operation; there’s no need for either Felstiner or us to imagine him curling his mustache-ends and giving an evil cackle as he sets out to write his review.  Any degree of awareness is hypothetically possible (and self-serving rationalization is always available to help with situations of partial awareness), but, in the main, ideology works best when it works invisibly and simply frames the way its subjects see. 

My second point is the corollary of the first:  Holthusen’s rhetorical strategy would have been invisible to most of his German audience as well.  They would have read his review and seen that he had acquitted himself of his duties as a reviewer of literature, having addressed himself to the literary qualities of the text at hand.  No doubt those readers would have been offended if someone had happened to tell them otherwise, and whoever had done the telling would’ve be arraigned on charges of importing extra-literary matters.  For many it is only hindsight that makes Holthusen’s creepy apologetics so immediately transparent.

Cynthia Ozick once heralded James Wood’s arrival on the scene by calling for a “forest of Woods.”  But the forest was there all along, and flourishing well before the current incarnation was even a sapling.  Holthusen, at least in what Felstiner quotes from this review, comes across as more of an arch-aestheticist than Wood (with the latter's concern for so-called “lifeness”), but at the more general level of ideological apologetics there’s a striking similarity.  Keeping Holthusen’s 1954 review of Celan’s Mohn und Gedächtnis in mind, I urge readers to take another look at Wood’s 2007 review of Roberto Bolaño’s Savage Detectives, which I’ll address in a follow-up post.


* Remarkable because, while superficially a “literary biography,” it calls its own genre into question by pushing the conventional procedures of literary biography into a zone of extremity, along the way throwing into crisis facile distinctions of “extrinsic” versus “intrinsic.”

December 10, 2008

Again on "Consciousness" and the Novel


"Again and again, the speech-attribution tags return us to the surface of the page.  They remind us that it’s writing we’re looking at.  In the absence of these repetitions, Bernhard’s narratives might read more like conventional free indirect discourse.  Their insistent interruptions, however, do more than merely answer the question of 'Who speaks?' (or 'Who thinks?' or 'Who writes?').  So far are they in excess of that function that they confound the question itself.  They take us out of the narcissistic pseudo-profounds of identification and put us back on the surface.  Their report highlights nothing so much as their own stubborn, interminable materiality." 

For more on this counter-aesthetics, see also "'The Viewer is Diverted', or, The Handke-Effekt" and "The Handke-Effekt II." 

December 2, 2008

The Function of Humanism at the Present Time

In an email exchange with a sympathetic but critical reader of this blog, an objection was raised over my assertion, in an earlier post, that James Wood is essentially an advocate for domestic fiction, that the domestic novel, as I wrote, is his “default setting.”  All one had to do to rebut this claim, the reader argued, was to look at the sheer variety of authors to whom Wood has awarded positive reviews.  Recently, for instance, he’s recommended Bolaño’s Savage Detectives and Saramago’s Death with Interruptions, neither of which could credibly be categorized as “domestic fiction.” 

It’s a line of reasoning that bears a striking resemblance to Wood’s own self-defense against charges of negativity and narrowness in his reply to the editors of n+1 magazine in 2005.  In the course of his career thus far, writes Wood,

I have written in praise, and often at considerable length, of Norman Rush . . . José Saramago, Saul Bellow, Graham Swift, Jeffrey Eugenides, Philip Roth, Victor Pelevin, Alan Hollinghurst, Amit Chaudhuri, Monica Ali, Jonathan Franzen, Jonathan Lethem, Kazuo Ishiguro, Muriel Spark, J.F. Powers, V.S. Pritchett, W.G. Sebald, J.M. Coetzee, Vikram Seth, Anne Enright, David Means, Geoff Dyer, David Bezmogis, James Kelman, Marilynne Robinson, Richard Yates, Francisco Goldman, V.S. Naipaul, and . . . Christina Stead . . . 

What begins as a response to the idea that he is somehow primarily a negative critic turns into a demonstration of his breadth.  He continues:

There is no obvious pattern here.  I am assumed to be a defender of “realism,” but I have skeptically reviewed Robert Stone and Tom Wolfe and John Irving, finding precisely their “realism” too conventional to deserve that noble and expansive word.  I am assumed to be an “aesthete,” but it is precisely John Updike’s aestheticism that has goaded me again and again into print in the last ten years.  I am assumed to be a “moralist,” but I like best to lose myself in the rich prose of a Bellow or a Melville or a Henry Green; probably no critic of contemporary fiction is more drawn to style and the enjoyment of style.  I love ideas in fiction, but not as Julian Barnes or Richard Powers practice them.  I praised Sabbath’s Theater and criticized The Human Stain; I was lukewarm about Disgrace but admired Elizabeth Costello.

At first glance the diversity of this list can look like an open-and-shut refutation of the charges of narrowness and the privileging of domestic fiction alike.  But there are at least two key ways that this line of defense is flawed.  The first flaw is that the breadth of the list is only apparent; it is really more a book-retailer’s than an intellectual’s idea of breadth, a list of names culled from the Fiction section of Border’s or Barnes & Noble.  Wood never really evinces any interest in art or culture or even literature (which includes drama and poetry as well as fiction) per se; with few exceptions he’s concerned solely with novels – which, by sheer coincidence I’m sure, tend to generate better sales than poetry, plays, and books on painting or sculpture or art-music.  And even his interest in novels is limited to Anglo-American and European novelists with the occasional garnish of some Anglo-postcolonial ginger.*  Of course one might offer as a counter-argument that Wood is, after all, a book reviewer, and to that extent dependent on the output of the market.  To which I would respond:  Now we are getting somewhere.

But there’s a second and, in my view, more serious flaw in Wood’s protestations of breadth.  To understand it, however, we have to look behind the sleight-of-hand of his “There is no obvious pattern here.”  Once one has read a critical mass of his actual reviews, one sees that there is indeed an “obvious pattern.”  He might award positive notices to what are arguably some quite different novels, but he awards them for more or less the same reason:  because they have (or can be construed as having) depictions of supposedly autonomous human consciousness.  They are all, in one way or another, versions of the “novel of character” he called for in his Franzen essay, and which he counterposed to the nemesis of hysterical realism.  Certainly a critic needs critical standards, but in Wood’s case, as in Procrustes’, the application of the standard has a funny way of leaving its subjects – or victims – standardized. 

The essay, “What Chekhov Meant by Life,” from his first collection, The Broken Estate, is programmatic in this regard.  Chekhov is Wood’s avatar of Negative Capability: “More completely than any writer before him Chekhov became his characters,” he writes.  Chekhov’s characters enjoy “true privacies,” which amounts to a kind of watershed in the history of literature:  “It is the movement of free consciousness in literature for perhaps the first time.”  He explains: 

Chekhov’s characters, however they yearn, they have one freedom that flows from his literary genius:  they act like free consciousnesses, and not as owned literary characters. This is not a negligible freedom.  For the great achievement of Chekhov’s brilliantly accidental style, his mimicking of the stream of the mind, is that it allows forgetfulness into fiction.  Buried deep in themselves, people forget themselves while thinking, and go on mental journeys.  Of course they do not exactly forget to be themselves.  They forget to act as purposeful fictional characters.  They mislay their scripts.

This is the desideratum – if a novel has this, it is good; if not, not.  It’s the summum bonum, which becomes the programme, which becomes the metric:  in review after review, for book after book, with a finally numbing regularity, the citing of these little moments (or their absence) in which characters reveal their ostensible ‘free, spontaneous’ human interiority.  What he says about Chekhov he says about Hamsun, what he says about Hamsun he says about Woolf.  The most important thing about Woolf’s technique, he writes, is that it “frees characters from the fiction which grips them; it lets characters forget, as it were, that they are thicketed in a novel.”  We, however, are never allowed to forget that we are straitjacketed in Wood’s criticism, which soon enough takes on an identikit quality:  pick up the sentence from the Woolf piece and plunk it right back down into the Chekhov essay (because the most important thing about Woolf’s technique, after all, is also the most important thing about Chekhov’s technique), or further back into the Shakespeare essay, or fast-forward it into his reviews of Monica Ali, Jeffrey Eugenides, or Norman Rush, of whose novel Mortals he writes, “its central achievement has to be the fidelity with which it represents consciousness.”  Or, for variety's sake, you could try his recent (June 2008) review of Rivka Galchen's first novel: "Atmospheric Disturbances is a novel of consciousness."  The catholicity of his taste and the variety of his benediction are hollow blessings, he is indeed a narrow critic.  In one way or another he reduces almost every novel that he approves of to this boilerplate.  Other aspects are secondary, mere vehicles of his humanist ideology; even style and form are just windows – dressed according to the transitory fashions of their times – through which good authors reveal, and poor authors obscure, these little flashes of private human inwardness.  His approval reduces the approved down to his own size.  He measures them with an inchworm metric. 

Look again at his paean to Chekhov’s supposed “free, human” consciousnesses – what is it but a displacement into the realm of fiction of the bourgeois-liberal political utopia?  It is a Chamber of Commerce-style political vision:  the classic liberty of the shopkeeper, laissez-faire “freedom from” as opposed to “freedom to,” etc., etc.  The fictional characters get to enjoy an idealized little republic in their heads – oh, and hearts! and, oh! souls! – and the reader gets to enjoy it on the page, while meanwhile each must compromise themselves to the edicts of “reality.” 

You can see the same bourgeois-liberal ideology at work in Wood’s negative reviews, and nowhere more so than in his reviews of the writers he arraigns for practicing so-called “hysterical realism” and its other postmodern variants. In these polemics Wood’s language tars anti-realist aesthetic modes such as allegory, the “paranoiac vision,” and magical realism with the brush of totalitarian and anti-human (and therefore anti-novelistic) political agendas that supposedly subvert the liberties of the novel’s ideal republic.  The word “agenda” is Wood’s, carefully drawn from the deep well of his received wisdom, because we all know that leftists have agendas:  thus our red-baiting reviewer speaks of “the agenda of Pynchon’s writing,” and of DeLillo he writes that, “he can employ only characters who are loyal to him and his agenda” – get it?  And because we all know that leftists and radicals like to pretend to espouse liberatory ideals but really want to enslave people, Wood has developed the clever rhetorical trick of turning his opponents’ radical libertarianism against them.  Toni Morrison’s magical realism, he writes in his review of Paradise, “bullies” her characters and “oppresses” them – get the trick?  Pynchon gets the same treatment in Wood’s review of Mason & Dixon:  The “fantastic comedy” for which Pynchon is “famous” is actually “willed” and “unfree,” says Wood, and his characters are “serfs to allegory.”  “Pynchon’s allegories are somewhat tyrannical,” Wood continues, and just in case we didn’t get the point: “Pynchon’s novels have . . . the agitated density of a prison.”

Of course this rhetorical trick involves the reviewer in a logical contradiction:  If these authors’ characters are just cartoons, ciphers, and stick-figures, as he says, then they can’t be bullied and oppressed.  So Wood must transform them into a trapped population of “live” characters, presumably yearning to breathe free and requiring his special agitation on their behalf.  It’s this missionary zeal that makes him, as I wrote in an earlier post, the perfect example of a Blairite in the realm of letters.  Once the characters are liberated, of course, they can be bitch-slapped with “personal responsibility.”  It will be high time for them to quit loafing and get real jobs, if any are available.

The function of humanism at the present time:  apologetics to keep a certain sector of the population – specifically the book reading part of it, and especially the part that reads “literary fiction” – on board with galloping inhumanity.  It doesn’t matter if they watch CNN or FOX, it doesn’t matter if they vote Democratic or Republican, as long as they keep watching the news and subscribing to popular magazines, as long as they keep going to book club, as long as they keep going to the polls – in other words as long as they keep believing in and cherishing the “free, spontaneous” privacies of their profoundly human consciousnesses. James Wood’s inchworm humanism is intended to give the culture of imperialism a human face.  The system must be legitimized as it hurtles to destruction and drags the entire globe with it.  The novel – as a recent post at the Existence Machine has done an admirable job in outlining – has always played a privileged role in this legitimizing task.  You need look no farther than the pages of the New Republic and the New Yorker themselves:  advocacy of “free” characters and their precious interiorities in the ‘cultural’ back pages, and advocacy of bombs away in the Middle East and bulldozers to bury Palestinians in the front pages.  “Interiority” for some and nullity for the rest. 

Abjection is humanism’s eternal Other, the abject always the shadow the humanist drags in his wake.  The fraudulent Anglo-European ideology of humanism and “free” human interiority, in its Christian-humanist and Enlightenment rationalism flavors – the Middle Passage long ago exposed it as a sick joke.  It shouldn’t have survived King Leopold’s Congo ‘Free’ State, shouldn’t have survived Wounded Knee, shouldn’t have survived two European world wars, shouldn’t have survived Auschwitz or Hiroshima or the Nakba or Algeria or Vietnam.  To the extent that it does survive, it is sheer apologetics.  The real shadow cast by Wood’s bourgeois-liberal republic of “free human consciousness” is the ghetto, the bantustan, the shantytown, the occupied territory.


*If you want to at least start to get a feeling for the genuine breadth of global literature, scan the postings at the invaluable Literary Saloon site, the weblog of the complete review; if you want an idea of a critic with real breadth, go back and read George Steiner, on whose reputation Wood broke a lance in 1996, or Edmund Wilson, about whose career Wood wrote a defensive, grudging review in 2005.  Next to these two figures Wood is a dwarf.