"BAD PAPER: The Bursting of the Fiction Bubble"

read it here.

September 21, 2008

An Ideological Itinerary II

If James Wood didn’t exist, the publishing industry would have to invent him. 

Early in Don DeLillo’s novel, Libra, there’s a scene where a rogue faction of CIA officials, unhappy with the outcome of the Bay of Pigs operation, meet clandestinely to plot an assassination attempt on Kennedy which they hope will spark the administration to renewed aggression against the Castro regime.  For their plot to work they must “script a person or persons out of ordinary pocket litter,” i.e. create a paper trail that will suggest the existence of a left-wing, pro-Castro assassin who doesn’t really exist.  As they begin to speculate on the identity such a person would need to have – what kind of background, what kind of psychological motivations, etc. – the reader realizes that their description fits perfectly the Lee Harvey Oswald whose life story is being narrated in the novel’s alternate chapters.  The similarity – the identity – between Oswald and the plotters’ assassin is entirely coincidental at one level and inevitable at another, because DeLillo is able to convince us of its being an expression of something deeply, inexorably, pathologically American.  As they must, the two plotlines converge, and we know what happens when they do.   

I was reminded of this while tracing James Wood’s ideological itinerary, and not only because DeLillo is one of Wood’s favorite novelists. I like to imagine the publishing industry – excuse me, I mean the media and entertainment mega-conglomerates for whom publishing is a sideline – getting together some time in the late-80s or early-90s to plot out their strategy for consolidation and “synergy” and so forth and wondering what they can do to further rationalize and commodify literature while still maintaining its cachet as something that ostensibly “transcends” the market.  They come up with a plan, Operation ‘Literary Fiction’, which involves reducing the novel to just another of the marketing categories that they already use for “genre fiction” such as mysteries, sci-fi, romance, celebrity bios, etc.  But how will they get away with it?  Won’t it be too crass and obvious?  They’ll need help to put this one over, so they begin to “script a person out of pocket litter,” i.e., create a paper trail that will suggest the existence of an ideal literary critic who doesn’t really exist.  They already own all the magazines and newspapers as well as the publishing companies, so planting the articles shouldn’t be a problem . . .

But of course they won’t have to plant any articles, because even as they speak, on the other side of the Atlantic, a former choir-boy from Durham, little Jimmy Wood, is coming to feel that the Guardian has served its purpose as a stepping stone.  Go west, young man . . .

James Wood is the ideal critic for the era in which the novel comes to be defined by its marketing category; it is Wood, preeminently, who puts the fetishism back into the commodity.  On the one hand, there’s a great leveling behind the scenes – “literary fiction” is just more product that needs to be moved, preferably in superstore bulk – but selling it is part of a system of “distinction” that depends on the appearance of hierarchy, so that customers get to consume status along with, say, the latest Claire Messud or Ian McEwan novel.  Wood’s criticism stabilizes the hierarchy of genres by guaranteeing the literariness of “literary fiction”; his imprimatur allows the novel to appear to have transcended mere marketing.  His reviewing functions as a kind of nominating process, in which select works of contemporary “literary fiction” are nominated into the pantheon of great literature that his essays about “classic” texts have already enshrined.  Thus, to take just a few examples, Monica Ali, Marilynne Robinson, Jeffrey Eugenides, and of course McEwan get to share the dias with Virginia Woolf, Chekhov, and Shakespeare.  Those stacks of Ian McEwan’s Saturday that you see on that Barnes and Noble table have hovering over them a halo that forms the blurb, “This Is Not A Commodity” —James Wood.  And it’s 10% off!  

The system will only work, however, if our hypothetical critic is seen to be fussy, highly-selective, as liable to reject – and reject strongly, unequivocally, in the manner of an excommunication (“this is not a novel”) – as to approve.  Moreover, the rejections need to be occasionally controversial – bucking popular trends (“hysterical realism”) or dismissing already-established reputations (Updike) – just as his benedictions should sometimes take us by surprise (Houellebecq).  

Finally, this critic should ideally be English. Let’s face it, there’s a big fantasy right now, in the American cultural imaginary, about being spanked by a Brit.  You see it, for example, on display in the popular reality-TV show, the Supernanny, in which each week Jo Frost sets another brood of kids in order by spanking their too-permissive parents. There’s an Animal Planet version of the concept, too, with a British dog-trainer instead of a nanny.  Maybe this craze got its start a few years back with that prime-time game show The Weakest Link, which featured a dominatrix known as Anne Robinson in a long black-leather SS jacket dismissing contestants with snarky put-downs, including her catch-phrase:  “Jonathan Franzen, you are the weakest link – goodbye!”  The current avatar of this trend, of course, is Simon Cowell, of American Idol fame.  But why should popular culture get to have all the masochistic fun?  Why can’t there be a high-culture version, too?

James Wood is a Simon Cowell for Americans who read.


Richard said...


But since when is Don DeLillo one of Wood's favorite novelists?

Also, I don't think much of the other writers (though I used to like McEwan), but Marilynne Robinson is great.

Edmond Caldwell said...

Hi Richard,

I see sometimes my irony doesn't translate well to the page. Wood of course despises DeLillo's work, so much so that he sometimes uses "DeLilloism" as a synonym for Hysterical Realism.

Also, you're right that the list of writers "nominated" under the system I describe aren't uniformly mediocre or mere purveyors "well-crafted" commercial realism. I haven't read Marilynne Robinson so I don't know about her, but Wood for example champions the work of Norman Rush (Mortals and Mating are his two novels) who I consider a wonderful writer. I think at a general level the system isn't about the quality of this or that individual work but about the nominating process itself (the medium is the message here), so that maybe we even have to read writers like Rush or Robinson "against the grain" of their own official institutional approval.

At some point I'll write about Wood's essay on Rush's novel, Mortals, but here I'll say this: Wood and I both agree that it's a terrific novel by a terrific writer, but Wood approves because it is yet another novel of "human consciousness" (i.e. he straps it down on the same Procrustean bed that frames his every review) where for me it is a terrific novel about the way "consciousness" itself is a constant struggle and negotiation with and against the language and discourses and institutions that condition "consciousness" in the first place. It is, among other things, a wonderful novel about the excesses of language, or rather a wonderful example and experience OF such excess.

Hope that’s marginally clear. Thank you for commenting.

Richard said...

Thanks. I should have picked up on the irony, given the overall tenor of the post, but I suppose I was viewing the statement as a "true" item grounding the ironic, or something.

Also thanks for the remakrs about Rush's work. I've had my eye on him for some time, but haven't read anything yet.

NigelBeale said...

"Wood’s criticism stabilizes the hierarchy of genres by guaranteeing the literariness of “literary fiction”; his imprimatur allows the novel to appear to have transcended mere marketing."

And here I thought he was simply sharing a profound love of literature with his readers. Silly me.

Daniel said...

Jonathan Franzen is a bit like a literary writer for Americans who don't read though, isn't he? A bit like DeLillo is an intellectual for Americans who don't think.

The plot of Libra sounds like a bad action-spy-comedy film when you spell it out like this. It isn't meant to be funny though, is it?

Justin said...

This post is utterly awesome and probably the best analysis of James Wood's existence to date. I knew there was a reason why Wood's rise seemed to dovetail with the commodification of "literary fiction," but I hadn't been able to articulate it to myself as well as this post does.

Down with critically approved writing!

Edmond Caldwell said...

Hi Daniel.

And thanks for your comment. I should clarify that I'm not criticizing Wood because I believe that he's necessarily wrong about the writers he doesn't like. I'm not in this to put a plus where Wood puts a minus and a minus where he puts a plus. Wood thinks Updike is a writer of fatuous complacent suburban fiction with a meretricious style. Spot on! (It just so happens that Wood is a writer of fatuous complacent suburban criticism in a meretricious style).

Maybe DeLillo is an intellectual for people who don't think -- I wouldn't know. For me he's a novelist. I happen to like some of his novels, some of them very much, including Libra. I'm sure plot elements of many novels besides DeLillo's would sound silly when extracted from their specific treatment. That treatment happened to work for me, maybe it would for you if you were to read the novel, or maybe not.

I should add, though, that if you think that plot sounds silly, you should read about some of the real plots the CIA got up to during the Cold War. Of course, I'm sure that nothing like that happens anymore . . .

Jim H. said...


Happy to have discovered your blog thanks to a kind mention and juxtaposition by Dan Green over at The Reading Experience.

Narcissism is magnetic. This sums up my most recent view of JW (from his review of Bart Ehrman's book in the New Yorker) over at http://wisdomofthewest.blogspot.com. If you visit, click on his name on the 'Labels' list to take you to my 19 (as of today) JW-related posts.

Your take, in the cultural context of Simon Cowell, is spot on.

Jim H.

HumanProject said...

Its an arresting image: the media conspirators plotting to develop the literary critic who will make literary fiction into just another genre -- except no need, because a critic was just then stepping forward (James Wood). It got me thinking about whether this has happened in other arenas.

Hm... maybe... the current political situation?

Just a month ago, the ruling kleptocracy was still riding high, thinking they could keep cronyist pay-outs while proclaiming the rigtheous need to rally the public patriotically around the war against Eastasia -- oops, I mean Eurasia. Then the banks started failing. And failing. And failing. Someone would have to pay. And the public wasn't going to accept McCain now, not after the curtain has been ripped away showing Wall Street graft and mismanagement, not with Sarah Palin's word salad (speaking in tongues?).

There would he hard times ahead. The average American would need to do some belt-tightening, hell, would need to drill new holes in their belts, would need to take pay cuts, and pay, and pay, and pay.

The ruling class realized they needed a new kind of President, the kind they hadn't tolerated since, who, oh, Clinton. They needed someone who would look good on the international stage, someone who could calm the eye-rollers in France, Germany and Italy (those commies). They needed someone who wouldn't constantly have to fight the working class, the middle class, the liberal media elite, the Hollywood bleeding hearts. They needed someone to do their dirty work: ram down the throat of the middle class the hard fiscal reforms necessary to clean up the debacle of Wall Street's greed.... Who... Gather round, start conspiratin'. But did they need to find... They already had 'im: Obama.

tc said...

Yes, humanproject, it's no conspiracy. Critics like Wood, a mass of them (also novelists), get filtered into position because they've long since bought into, been taught, the ideological bounds within which they can operate. Obama, too, and so on across fields - media, movies, religion, education, etc.

Wood's main literary inspiration seems to be establishment favorite Flaubert, as I recently noted at "Literary Comedy and Reality":

A century and a half on, Flaubert’s main value in art is that he continues to be used by the literature establishment to bury his countryman Victor Hugo and the example of a far more wholly accomplished and world changing fiction that is liberatory. While Hugo (Flaubert’s landmark watershed predecessor and contemporary) is a greater artist and liberatory force in literature and history than Flaubert, the establishment is deeply invested in giving the basic opposite impression. In a neat inversion, and to the detriment of all but perhaps the most privileged, Flaubert is used to bury Hugo, by way of misrepresented aesthetics, norms, reality.

Flaubert is so lauded by the establishment evidently because his ideological line is a great fit for that which the status quo must work within – an orthodox ostensible apoliticism – the ideology that denies it is an ideology. In fact, Flaubert is the status quo’s ideological apotheosis: a politically dismissive, politically disparaging artist who is narrowly aesthetically obsessed, a figure whose work has anything but apolitical effects.

NigelBeale said...

tc: this kind of utter hogwash has little to do with aesthetics, which after all is what literary critics concern themselves with, and a lot to do with political dogma. I challenge you to come up with even one Hugo line that is the equal of any of these: http://nigelbeale.com/?p=741

Edmond Caldwell said...

Since this Flaubert vs Hugo version of the old "elite vs popular culture" debate has raised its head here, I'll just say that I'm with Adorno, who famously described this opposition as the "torn halves of an integral freedom, to which however they do not add up." Choosing one 'side' or other is therefore not the point; as A. puts it elsewhere, "the division itself is the truth." It's a social contradiction that is inscribed in and defaces every artifact of culture, not something to be wished away.

To think that you're going to 'settle' the dispute by some kind of duel of snippets - the gauntlet Nigel throws down - is to abandon yourself to literature's reification in advance.

tc said...

Nigel's comment is spectacularly ignorant (well schooled, apparently) on at least two levels, partly as noted by Edmond. How much of Hugo have you read, Nigel - exactly?

But allowing for the absurdity of the exercise, here are some snippets of Hugo, a mere endnote in Graham Robb's book:

‘Geometry deceives; only the hurricane is accurate’ (Les Miserables)…. Also ‘Les Fleurs’…’Cloud forms are rigorous’…. ‘No thinker would dare to say that the scent of hawthorn is of no use to constellations’ (Les Miserables)…. ‘There are no absolute logical links in the human heart any more than there are perfect geometrical figures in celestial mechanics’ (Les Miserables)….

Hugo's quality artistic accomplishment dwarfs that of Flaubert's. Meanwhile, Hugo's aesthetic qualities and achievements are at least equivalent to those of Flaubert, and in my view considerably greater. The schools (and the rest of the lit establishment) typically pass along a sort of doubly ignorant alternative view. A lot of writers can hope to match Flaubert's achievements in literature. Virtually none can hope to match what Hugo accomplished, in literature alone, let alone otherwise.

That said, Edmond, you miss my point, understandly enough since these blog comments and posts are so brief. (I'll probably go ahead and post a substantial essay on this next week, or maybe break it up into a series of multiple blog posts.) Flaubert is an accomplished and valuable artist. I don't dispute that. I don't agree with a variety of his views and much of his work I don't care for, though not all. Instead, I'm pointing out the false excessive elevation of his example, and its use in falsely demeaning vital liberatory alternatives, including Hugo's example not least. An exercise that Flaubert himself sometimes participated in.

NigelBeale said...

Edmund: Here's Ezra Pound (the literary critic, not the political commentator): I cannot repeat too often or too forcibly my caution against so-called critics who talk 'all around the matter', and who do not define their terms, and who won't say frankly that certain authors are demnition bores."

tc: I've read enough Hugo to know that he sir, is no Flaubert. I'm with Aristotle: the 'greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor...it is a sign of genius'

If those are the best Hugo lines you can come up with, I rest my case.

Edmond Caldwell said...

Tony: Thanks for that amplification of your point - I look forward to your blog post as well.

Nigel: Alrighty, since you're going to go and quote Uncle Ez on me, I'll say it out as frankly as I can: James Wood is a 'demnition bore.'

tc said...

Hugo is no Flaubert? I couldn't agree more. Your "case rests" on your assessment of an absurd litmus test? As you wish.

matt said...

Sounds like a bunch of paranoid guff to me. 'Critic in huge ego and own agenda shock'. As for the British angle - please.

Edmond Caldwell said...

Hi Matt:
And thanks for your comment. The 'paranoid' riff was intentional satire, as most readers seemed to understand.