"BAD PAPER: The Bursting of the Fiction Bubble"

read it here.

October 5, 2008

Keepin’ it Real, the James Wood Way

These days if anyone were to insist that all “legitimate” paintings had to include the illusion of depth, three dimensions, and a vanishing point they’d be laughed out of school.  The only place where such a rule prevails is on the walls of motels, and even the popular press (for the most part, and barring seasonal moral panics) acknowledges that such sentiments are retrograde.  So why is the equivalent tolerated in the criticism of literature, or at least what passes for it, in the periodical press such as the New Republic, and beyond?  What accounts, when it comes to the reception of fiction, for this lag in cultural sensibility? 

One reason, I think, might lie in the different legitimizing functions that have been assigned to the two arts.  In the previous century – and especially after WW2 – the visual arts were successfully corralled into ratifying and reproducing an ideology of ceaseless technological modernization.  Developments in the visual arts could be co-opted by advertising – and if the line between them blurred, so much the better.  In this cultural division of labor, literature was assigned a more traditional and conservative role.  Something had to be there to assure us, however speciously, of our ostensible “humanity,” while universal inhumanity reigned.  The visual arts could afford their centrifugal advances as long as literature – and especially the novel – was there to act as a centripetal anchor, so that a center might appear to hold. 


In the Introduction to his first collection of reviews, The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief, James Wood makes his pitch for what he terms “realism,” which is apparently based on something prior to it known as “the real”:  

It is impossible to discuss the power of the novel without discussing the reality that fiction so powerfully discloses, which is why realism, in one form or another, has been the novel’s insistent preoccupation from the beginning of the form.  We respond, as readers of fiction, to a massive variety of realities.  Yet in all fiction those moments when we are suddenly swayed, suddenly moved, have to do with something we fumblingly call ‘true’ or ‘real’. 

Note that word, “moments,” which I’ve taken the liberty of underscoring here.  Wood is very much a critic of “moments,” of miniatures, his critical aesthetic amounting at times almost to kind of a pointillism.  What is at stake in his implicit reduction of reality, on the one hand, and literature on the other, to “moments”?  This is a question that I’ll explore in future posts; for now I want to take a look at his first example and the definition of the “real” and “realism” that is suggested there: 

One such moment occurs in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, when Stephen Dedalus hears his father sing an old song [. . .] and then his father exclaims:  “Ah, but you should have heard Mick Lacy sing it!  Poor Mick Lacy!  He had little turns for it, grace notes he used to put in that I haven’t got.”  This moves us—why?  Because it is like life?  Certainly, for although it may not exactly resemble our lives, it brings to our heart a plausible loss, we have all felt our own version of “You should have heard Mick Lacy sing it!”  It is moving because an experience that Stephen Dedalus believes is original to him—wistfully hearing his father hear a sad air—is revealed, so gently, to be not original to him, and is actually a much fiercer and more complicated experience for his father.  Behind one reality lies a deeper, more private reality, which may be lost.

It’s a rather astonishing misreading of Joyce – not even a ‘strong’ misreading, but a flattening and a straitening, a sentimental reduction, and possibly a mendacious evasion.  Wood shrinks the scene, and by implication the informing sensibility of the novel as a whole, to the scale of Simon Dedalus himself, caught here indulging in a personal “Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone” moment of the kind which Joyce consistently rejected.  In its essence the experience is more fiercely complicated than even Wood imagines, for Simon Dedalus maundering over “poor Mick Lacy’s” grace notes represents his participation in the larger Irish cultural myth of some irrecoverable heroic-romantic past which authors such as Joyce and Sean O’Casey depicted as a futile and besotted compensation for social and psychological paralysis in the present.  This father the novel repudiates.  Wood leaves out Joyce’s critical framing and urges on us instead a bit of sentiment worthy of Hugh Leonard’s Da.  He defangs the Joycean bite and restages the moment in Hummel figurines.

Of course, Wood might respond that his reading of the moment comes with a warrant signed by Joyce himself:  it is like that parallel scene in “The Dead,” when Gabriel Conroy observes his wife Greta listening to “The Lass of Aughrim,” oblivious to the ‘private reality’ the song evokes in her – Wood indeed makes the connection himself in the introduction’s next paragraph.  Maybe what we have here, then, is one of the problems that come with never getting beyond an aesthetic of (mere) moments.  Joyce’s first artistic breakthrough entailed the composition of small, isolated observations of Dublin life that he called his “epiphanies.”  But A Portrait of the Artist as Young Man transcends, as much as it includes, the “epiphany” method of Dubliners.  In the interests of his own reading, Wood aborts the dialectic of the very text he bases his sermon on.  

It’s an interesting and, I think, significant fact that Wood’s first published book begins with this act of misdirection – not only toward his variant of realism but away from modernism and the modernist Revolution of the Word.  His opening gambit is nothing other than the contravention of what is after all the trajectory of Stephen Dedalus’ Bildung and Joyce’s own development.  Premised on the rejection of all inherited fathers, biological and otherwise, Portrait represents or rather enacts the autotelic creation of the modernist novel out of the stuff of the supposedly ‘real’.  The real:  that concretion of stale custom, unconscious prejudice, and naturalized ideology, including of course the discourses and institutions of the family, the nation, the church (not to mention the discourses and institutions of the novel as Joyce inherited these from the nineteenth century).  I shall try to fly by those nets, announced Stephen.  Joyce rejects and repudiates ‘given’ patriarchal authority, the patriarchal authority of biological and social ‘destiny’ (and one might say of ‘realism’), in favor of (modernist) self-creation.  His protagonist’s name is Dedalus, after all, not Icarus.  But at a stroke James Wood undoes all this and restores the father, patriarchal authority, the family, all the ‘nets’ that Stephen flies by.  The reality of Wood’s realism is never innocent; his ‘real’ is always a sediment of ideology.  In Blakean terms, he is in the service of Nobodaddy.


HumanProject said...

Enjoyed this sentence:

the visual arts were successfully corralled into ratifying and reproducing an ideology of ceaseless technological modernization

The prior theory I'd heard on this is that the advent of photography made artists look for a different niche than accurate portrayal.

Hm, but think of the recent episode of Mad Men when the 1960s ad agency exec displays his new Rothko and the scurrying lower level employees, trying to get another $20/week in pay, stand in fear in front of its inpenetrability (fear that they may be asked their opinion of it).

Later the shows' writers imply that the meaning of the Rothko is that the astonishing $10,000 Cooper paid for it will be recouped when it doubles in value the next year -- but I agree with Caldwell's interpretation (the Rothko means they are modern).

Ok, what about this: literature can't be as experimental and nonrepresentational as visual art (and still appeal to the typical person) because a story requires understanding; art can be enjoyed in a sensory fashion?

Jim H. said...

One point I think this fine latest post makes (at least by implication) is that Wood's focus on 'moments' (discrete, perhaps epiphanic incidents that occur at specific loci in time) is responsible for what I have taken to be the short shrift he gives to the notion of "story" in the novel. The novelist's work, it seems to me, is the stringing together of just such moments in some sort of connective arc, i.e., to provide continuity. Think of the profound and lovely metaphor of the rainbow in Pynchon's GR, its aspiration and its return to earthen reality (which also describes the trajectory of the missile!). This is story—the compelling thing that brings us to the movies and to fiction and, to the extent it is well done, even to memoir.

This is the work that has grown out of our own close reading of How Fiction Works over at Wisdom of the West and our follow-through theme-posts on what we called "Ur-story".

Jim H.

tc said...

On Rothko, et al, Mark Vallen at his excellent weblog notes:

"For those who still regard art as being "above" politics consider the following. The Central Intelligence Agency financed, organized, and assured the success of the American abstract expressionist movement, using artists like Jackson Pollock, Sam Francis, Willem de Kooning, Barnett Newman, Robert Motherwell, and Mark Rothko, as weapons in the struggle against the Soviet Union.

"Frances Stonor Saunders has presented this matter of public record in her well documented book, The Cultural Cold War - The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters. Saunders informs us that during the height of the Cold War in the 1950's, the CIA secretly promoted abstract expressionism as a means of discrediting the socialist realism of the Soviet Union...."

"The spy agency created and staffed an international institution they named the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF)," which "...brought action painting to the attention of Nelson Rockefeller, whose family ran the New York Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Rockefeller was so enamored with what he saw that he actually referred to abstract expressionism as "free enterprise painting." Not surprisingly Rockefeller began his own action painting collection, furthering the largesse and esteem of the abstract expressionist movement. It's hard to imagine that the artists didn't know where their money and support was coming from, but as Saunders put it in her book, "if they didn't they were... cultivatedly and culpably, ignorant."

"Even after Pollock's death in 1956 the Agency continued to promote his works by organizing posthumous exhibitions...."


Jacob Russell said...

Cannot resist this quote... do read the whole post, from physicist Sean Caroll:

"Respectable scientific theories are phrased as formal systems, usually in terms of equations. But most of us don’t think in equations, we think in words and/or pictures. This is true not only for non-specialists interested in science, but for scientists themselves; we’re not happy to just write down the equations, we want sensible ways to think about them. Inevitably, we “translate” the equations into natural-language words. But these translations aren’t the original theory; they are more like an analogy. And analogies tend to break under pressure. Respectable scientific theories are phrased as formal systems, usually in terms of equations. But most of us don’t think in equations, we think in words and/or pictures. This is true not only for non-specialists interested in science, but for scientists themselves; we’re not happy to just write down the equations, we want sensible ways to think about them. Inevitably, we “translate” the equations into natural-language words. But these translations aren’t the original theory; they are more like an analogy. And analogies tend to break under pressure."

All literary claims to representing "reality"... are analogies. Translations into language.

Please do read the rest of Sean's post...


jacob Russell said...

I think I mistakenly attributed a quote from The Dirac Shore to Sean Carroll of Cosmic Variance...

The Go analogy was from Dirac Shore, not Sean Carroll.

NigelBeale said...

"It’s a rather astonishing misreading of Joyce..."

Here is Richard Ellmann's 'misreading' of Joyce's rejection of his father's romanticism: "In A Portrait Stephen denies that Simon is in any real sense his father, but James himself had no doubt that he was in every way his father's son."

The passage Wood quotes has little to do with Joyce's/Stephen's flying by the nets of nationality, religion and language, or a “Romantic Ireland dead and gone” It has to do with the successful conveyance of Simon's loss.

Your blog Edmond is refreshing in that it deals seriously with a serious critic; I can only hope that the political stink diminishes, and the astonishingly arrogant dismissals disappear.


Edmond Caldwell said...

Hi Nigel:

And thanks for your comment. Would it be politically tendentious of me to point out that Portrait is first and foremost a NOVEL? Or would that be an aesthetic point?

In fact, your very citation from Ellmann makes my point for me: In the NOVEL "Stephen denies that Simon is in any real sense his father," whereas in real life James does not deny his father. If I had been talking about the biographical Joyce rather than his novel, your criticism would be annihilating. But - as was consistently clear throughout my post - I was talking about the novel. Of course the novel is very autobiographical, but there are crucial differences as well, and this one of them (as has been noted very often).

To Wood's astonishing misreading of Joyce, you have just added your astonishing misreading of Ellmann.

Richard said...

Yes, please, always, let the "political stink" disappear, lest we get some on us.

NigelBeale said...

"His opening gambit is nothing other than the contravention of what is after all the trajectory of Stephen Dedalus’ Bildung and Joyce’s own development"

So, by 'Joyce's own development' you are not referring to 'the biographical Joyce'?

Let's get 'real' here Edmond.

Edmond Caldwell said...

Hi Nigel:
It's clear in the post that I'm discussing Joyce's artistic development.

But I do want to correct something I wrote in my previous comment: I was wrong to say that you misread Ellmann, and I retract that. What you did was to misread my post.

Unfortunately, "an astonishing misreading of Edmond Caldwell" doesn't have the same ring to it. Alas.

LML said...

It's a canard to compare literature to the visual arts. I think your Wood attack has more merit than most Wood attacks, but no one has been able to square painterly modernism with linguistic modernism; don't blame Wood for retrogression in that regard. Stein was conventional compared to Picasso, and then once representation is gone entirely, where is there even an analogue in literature? Language poetry, maybe, at its least interesting extremes. It's easier to make "paint" or "color" the successful subject of a work of visual art than it is to make "the alphabet" or "words" the subject of literary art. I'm no neuroscientist, but I'm guessing there are neuroscientific reasons for this.

Edmond Caldwell said...

I appreciate your comment, and I think that if I had been comparing literature and the visual arts at the level you suggest, it would be indeed be a canard. I agree that for whatever reasons, due to significant differences in language versus color & form and in our reception of them (which, in spite of the latest trends, I'm not ready to chalk up to Brain Science just yet, before I've exhausted all the historical & culture reasons for why this might be, were I inclined to continue this line of inquiry), there aren't good 'equivalents' of, say, utterly non-representational painting in the realm of novels.

But my argument was clearly about the cultural reception and appreciation of innovation, experimentation, "the avant-garde", call it what you will, in those respective arts, and not in the arts themselves. Yes Picasso and Gertrude Stein are not "the same." But I think it's fair to compare and draw conclusions about the reception of innovation in those various fields; it would be just as much a canard, if you will, to build a firewall between them as it would be to make them somehow 'the same.' Surely developments in the two arts have influenced each other, haven't they? Surely there are moments that are loosely comparable - interest in collage/montage earlier in the previous century, that couldn't be all coincidence, could it? So what are we talking about, then?

Interesting questions, which are also getting further afield from the intent of the post in question. Do you disagree with the main point of the introduction, that the visual arts have been appropriated by an ideology of modernization in a way that literature has not?

And still more important, and the point of the main body of the post itself: Would you deny that there are conservative forces in the realm of literary criticism? This is what I'm saying about Wood, the "retrogression" I "blame" him (in small part - more as representative than some great originator) for.

LML said...

"Do you disagree with the main point of the introduction, that the visual arts have been appropriated by an ideology of modernization in a way that literature has not?"

"Would you deny that there are conservative forces in the realm of literary criticism?"

I would say that it is more complicated than this. The visual arts can more easily accommodate radical gestures, or can accommodate gestures that are more radical, than can language-based arts. I feel pretty certain, without being able to prove it, that this has something to do with the nature of language.

Language can't move terribly far away from context and meaning without becoming nonsense, and accumulations of nonsense simply don't hold my interest. I'm not sure why this should be so, since a painter can wrench form and color and physical material entirely out of any rational context, and I remain endlessly interested. I invoked neuroscience, perhaps stupidly, because this is the realm of "stuff about the processing of aesthetic experience that I don't fully understand." I doubt there is any good explanation forthcoming from neuroscientists, though.

So: Yes, I'd say literature in general and fiction in particular are more conservative (in the sense that the reuse of existing forms is the norm), and that the most visible literary critics seem not to have a problem with this state of things. But I think there simply aren't as many first-rate texts that are aesthetically radical as there are first-rate pictures that are aesthetically radical. And I think it has to do with different limitations in the art forms.

Visual artists still had room to operate once representation ceased being the default mode. Stein, on the other hand, went as far in trying to remake language as anyone has, and she was still in the realm of representation. The language poets seem to have reheated her beakers and built new, but not all that surprising, compounds. And even they depend on representation (even as they trouble the mind's assembling of meaning).

I simply don't believe that the issue is primarily political, and I'd offer in support of this idea the fact, first, that there has never been a time when aesthetic categories have matched up neatly with political ones. (During literature's arguably most innovative period, pre-WWII, the innovators were for the most part pretty conservative.) I'd also offer the fact that literature's current stage of "development" is not materially different from country to country. French or Latin American writers may seem a little hipper and more playful than North Americans and the English, but no writer has really surprised readers with formal innovations in several decades now. The best writer alive during my lifetime was, in my opinion, W.G. Sebald, and he's notable for finding a supremely evocative way of piggybacking on old forms to create a new genre. Not coincidentally, that genre is the perfect vehicle for cataloguing the slow murder of civilization at the hands of industrial capitalism.

So I don't think that literary conservatism is attributable to the fact that we're all neoliberals now. My instinct tells me that it's more likely my favorite art form is all but exhausted. My hope is that I'm wrong, and that a Joyce-level genius will come along and open up vast new tracts of land. But this seems naive to me.

Lloyd Mintern said...

Isn't the name of this blog totally disingenuous? Are you planning on abandoning the whole project of opposing James Wood after you have fully demolished him as a mere imitator and establishment hack? Since he obviously is an imitator, and a straw man filled with tattered ideas, what is the point of discussing it? Your own facility of thought has this "critic of triteness" beat to begin with, so I say: CONTRA . . . (many ways to go here, how about CONTRA DICTION)

Edmond Caldwell said...


Thanks for that very thoughtful response! While I agree with you that there are some fundamental differences between literature and the visual arts based on differences in their respective media (language vs form & color, etc), now I think that it's you who might be conflating them too much, on one level at least. Specifically it's when you say that the visual arts are inherently "more radical" than literature, literature "more conservative" than the vis. arts. Rather, I think that there is a radicalism and a conservatism particular to literature, and a radicalism and conservatism particular to the vis. arts. And I would add that these are always historical, i.e. that what's 'radical' at one time will not be at another, and so forth. But my approach is always to look for the historical explanation rather than an explanation deriving from the 'essences' of things, so our difference probably reflects a more fundamental difference in the kind of questions we're asking.

And in that spirit of the historical approach, I'll just add that I don't think of Joyce as a thing of the past - rather, we're still waiting to catch up to Finnegans Wake.

LML said...

I'm not talking about "essences," and I'd argue that you're not talking very precisely about "history." Not to belabor this--I'm writing at length because I find your ideas interesting (if unconvincing)--but I think you go wrong when you consider capital-H history apart from the internal histories of these art forms. Obviously the novel is a cultural product defined anew by every era, but this basic truth is always in tension with the internal history of the form, which (as you imply in your comment about Finnegan's Wake) cuts back and forth across centuries and ideologies. Your broad claims about how the novel relates to large-scale historical developments (and about how James Wood is I guess symptomatic of these historical developments) don't quite take flight because you don't sufficiently bring the specific history and limits of the novel into your argument.

Edmond Caldwell said...

I agree completely that the novel and all the other arts have "internal histories" that must be attended to, and that any convincing analysis needs to be mediated through these "internal histories" to avoid being crudely sociological. I don't find anything in the post in question that substantively violates this, however. As far as I can see, my specific comments about Joyce and the passage of Portrait that Wood castrates attend to both the internal history of Joyce's own artistic development (much better than Wood's analysis, I might add) and to the history of the development of the novel in general (the transition from realism to literary 'impressionism' to 'high' modernism), in which Joyce played such an important role.

Beyond that, I've framed this analysis in some broader remarks about the scandal of ostensible literary critics getting away with a parochial ass-backwardness that wouldn't pass in serious reviewing of the visual arts, and I've clarified that I'm talking about the reception of those arts, which I believe is a valid comparison at a certain level of generality. (I.e. I'm not saying Why can't novels just be like Rothko paintings or whatever).

Some of found this convincing; others - you are one - not. Ah well. The consistent intelligence of your comments so far makes me hope that you'll find my analyses more convincing in the future. In the meantime I hope you'll stop next door at my other blog, The Chagall Position, and take a look at a post about Handke there.


Edmond Caldwell said...

A late, very late addition to the edition: Conceptual poet (and founder of the sublime UbuWeb) Kenneth Goldsmith, from an interview in RainTaxi's Fall 2008 online edition:

"Well, I often am fond of quoting Brion Gysin that 'Writing is fifty years behind painting', and that remains true today. So, in terms of Conceptual Art, which was finished about 40 years ago, we’re just getting to that now in writing. It really is a bit of a lag. There have been strains and gestures toward conceptual writing, but it always seemed like it was wrapped up in a more conventional pose of poetry—even what we consider to be the most avant-garde and innovative poetry of recent times still looked and felt very much like poetry. Our last avant-garde in poetry might be equivalent to Abstract Expressionism. And suddenly, in the early 60s in the art world, with ideas of Pop Art, painting became something in quotations, and hence leaping off into gestures of Conceptual Art, Minimal Art, and all the other visual strains of the 1960s."

full here: