"BAD PAPER: The Bursting of the Fiction Bubble"

read it here.

November 26, 2008

Crocodile Tears

There’s nothing like death to bring out the narcissism of the living.  There’s a good, sound, physiological reason for it, too:  it’s the organism’s reflex at realizing that it, by exhilarating contrast, still lives.  But most of us have the good manners to suppress the impulse while we’re at the wake.  

Which brings me to this performance, in equal parts comical and enlightening:  James Wood on the death of David Foster Wallace (via Edward Champion’s tribute page).  It has been up on the web for a while now, but it’s amusing enough for a second look, now that the wake is over:      

I was terribly saddened to hear this news. Whatever one felt about his work, it was hard to imagine any serious reader of fiction not being intensely interested in what he was going to do next. I had been looking forward to witnessing his literary journey, and to adjusting my own opinions and prejudices — or rather, being forced by the quality of the work to do so. Of great interest to me was his own ambivalent relation with some elements of postmodernism (irony, too-easy self-consciousness, and so on), and the burgeoning presence of moral critique in his work. One had the feeling that his new work was being written under considerable pressure — and I don't just mean psychological pressure, but the pressure of staying loyal to his fractured, non-linear epistemology while at the same time incorporating some of that admiration he had for the concerns of the nineteenth-century novel. To put it flippantly, he was aesthetically radical and metaphysically conservative, and the negotiation of that asymmetry would have been a marvelous thing to follow, as a reader.

An untruthful reviewer of my book, How Fiction Works, claimed that David Foster Wallace was its "aesthetic villain." That is not true. I discussed him as an extreme example of a tension I think is endemic to post-Flaubertian fiction, which is the question, as Martin Amis once put it, of "who's in charge": is it the stylish author, who sees the world in his fabulous language, or his probably less stylish characters, who are borrowing the author’s words? Wallace's fiction, I wrote, "prosecutes an intense argument about the decomposition of language in America, and he is not afraid to to decompose — and discompose — his own style in the interests of making us live through this linguistic America with him." One of the most impressive aspects of Wallace was that stylistic fearlessness.

On Friday, I was pondering writing a note to Wallace to say as much (and to correct the impression he might have got from that review), and then on Saturday came the terrible news — "like a man slapped."

We might wonder why we had to hear from Wood on this topic at all.  Testimonials from DFW’s friends, his fellow writers, his former students, and his fans – readers who cherished his works or had been influenced by them – yes, but Wood was none of these.  DFW has never figured very largely in the journalism Wood has written since he’s been in the U.S.  When his name does appear, it’s typically in one of Wood’s perp walks, sloppy amalgams such as “Pynchon, DeLillo, and David Foster Wallace,” as if they were all engaged in pretty much the same literary project (as they might seem to someone especially thick-headed).  At some point in his Guardian past Wood wrote a kind word that ended up as jacket blurb for Infinite Jest – “Wallace is a superb comedian of culture” – and while I don’t have a copy of whatever this quote was lifted from I would lay odds that it was something along the lines of his Franzen review, i.e., blandishments amid a general birching.  More recently, in How Fiction Works, Wood introduces DFW for a few paragraphs as the examplar du jour of the tendency he has elsewhere decried as “Hysterical Realism.”  But so what?  He has never been a booster of DFW’s work, and he’s never been a particular detractor of it either, preferring to train his fire on DeLillo and Pynchon and shunt Wallace to the guilt-by-association amalgams.  In other words, there was simply no rhetorical occasion for him to be saying anything at all, in public anyway, about DFW’s death.  Here was a time when nobody, nobody (apart from his fluffers) cared about what James Wood might have to say.  There was no reason for him to write his eulogy on DFW except to draw attention to himself – and HFW.

The eulogy opens on a note of impersonality (“Whatever one felt about his work . . .”) that is really the foot in the door of the uninvited guest.  Then through the pried-open door comes an inky cloud of narcissism disguised as a bouquet thrown at Wallace’s growing moral seriousness.  Of great interest to me was his own ambivalent relation with some elements of postmodernism (irony, too-easy self-consciousness, and so on), and the burgeoning presence of moral critique in his work,” could be rewritten as, “Of great interest to me was the way he was coming to look like me.”  Graveside condescension does not get any more revolting than this:  a critic lamenting the death of an author a couple of years his senior on the grounds that the latter’s work had been showing signs of maturity.  “He was aesthetically radical and metaphysically conservative” – gosh, he’d made it halfway there!  The portrait is accurate – at the points where it is the reflection of its author. 

But narcissism can be wounded, and so we come to the “untruthful reviewer.”  This is a reference to Walter Kirn, who gave How Fiction Works a witty twitting in the New York Times Book Review.  Kirn is “untruthful” about HFW, writes Wood, because he “claimed that David Foster Wallace was its ‘aesthetic villain’.”  So we don’t miss the point he reminds us again: “That is not true.”  Note that it’s “an untruthful reviewer” and not “an untruthful review” (and still less “an inaccurate assertion”).  Kirn, says Wood, is a liar, and to prove it he shows first Kirn’s lie and then goes on to restate the ostensible truth to be found in How Fiction Works.  Wood doesn’t give Kirn’s name, however – maybe because he doesn’t want people to go back and read the review for themselves.  Here’s what Kirn wrote:

The heroes of this great artistic labor tend to be semimonastic introverts who, like Wood’s beloved Henry James and Gustave Flaubert, toil with the doors shut and locked, in soundproof splendid isolation, attentive to the subtle frictions among nouns and adjectival phrases. Conversely, the folks who spoil the experiment are David Foster Wallace types who let themselves be distracted and overwhelmed by the roar of the streets, the voices of the crowd. Wallace, to whom Wood grants the dubious honor of being one of his book’s few aesthetic villains, is accused of “obliterating” his characters’ voices in an unpleasing, “hideously ugly” attempt to channel cultural chaos rather than filter, manipulate or muffle it. For the vicarish Wood, sequestered in his chamber, part of the fiction writer’s true vocation appears to be acoustic regulation — the engineering of a mental space in which literary whispers can be heard.  (my emphasis)

But this is rather different – Kirn says Wallace is one of the book’s few aesthetic villains, not THE aesthetic villain.  So far it seems like the untruth is on Wood’s side.  If this is just a quibble, it’s the quibble on which Wood stakes his potentially damaging assertion of another reviewer’s “untruth.”  But maybe it’s the word “villain” that has Wood so upset; it’s easy enough to consult the pages of How Fiction Works where DFW’s name pops up and see if the word amounts to an “untruth.”  There are one or two nice things about Wallace in those pages, which Wood was careful to cherry-pick and plug into his little eulogy.  Here’s another compliment:  "In other words, the novelist’s job is to become, to impersonate what he describes, even when the subject itself is debased, vulgar, boring.  David Foster Wallace is very good at becoming the whole of boredom."  Why didn’t he plug that into the eulogy, too?  It’s the blandishments-and-birch routine all over again; the compliments come in the context of setting up the author as the current exemplar of a very damaging tendency in contemporary fiction – exemplar, or, in Kirn’s formulation, “villain.” Here’s Wood from an August 15, 2004 interview with the Boston Globe:

Part of my anxiety and unease about novels by Foster Wallace, Franzen, and others is that they have swallowed a great deal of journalism, sociology, and cultural studies, which means they are no longer doing something that's not replaceable that another medium can't do as well or better. . . . I am accused of being too harsh, but the critic's job is to look at the threats, the menaces to literature. (Ellipses in original)

So, Wood can speak of “menaces to literature,” but Kirn can’t use the rhetoric of ‘heroes and villains’ when speaking of Wood’s preferences and biases in his review?  No, it isn’t a stretch for Kirn to write that DFW plays the role of one of the “aesthetic villains” in How Fiction Works.  It’s not a stretch, and it is a patent untruth to call it an “untruth.” 

And finally there’s the priceless, star-fucking conclusion:  “I was pondering writing a note to Wallace—”  Not a letter, mind you, but a “note.”  So casual – thought I’d drop you a line!  Yes, Jim, we know you know a lot of real writers, OK?  And then a final flush of narcissism, a last glance in the mirror before he exits the wake:  the idea that DFW had at some point during the last months of his life bothered to check in with what the likes of James Wood had been writing about him.   

November 15, 2008

The Domestic Agenda

In my last post, I dubbed James Wood “The Restorationist” for arguing that Monica Ali’s deeply conventional realism in Brick Lane represented something more genuinely new and adventurous than what we might find in DeLillo, Pynchon, or Franzen.  The Restorationist wants to steer the besotted, benighted adherents of faddish “Hysterical Realism” towards the wan, sober glow of a resigned domestic realism like Ali’s.  This shouldn’t surprise us, because domestic fiction, it turns out, is really James Wood’s default setting.  It’s especially in his reviews of writers from the US and the UK – where we can also see his criticism take on a more prescriptive edge – that this fact becomes apparent.  In his time Wood has had to issue a disclaimer or two that he’s not an advocate for domestic fiction, maybe because something in his reviews has given readers the forgivable impression that he’s, well, an advocate for domestic fiction. 

Listen to what he singles out as the best thing in Underworld (and no, it’s not Pafko at the Wall):

Only in one great, long passage, the 120 pages which beautifully draw DeLillo’s childhood Bronx, does DeLillo relax his clench, and write about nothing so important as human consciousness.  Here he writes fiction as it should be:  a free scatter through time, unpressed, incontinent, unhostaged, surprised by the shock of its unhindered passage through frontiers it, and not history, has invented. 

Elsewhere in the review Wood arraigns DeLillo for what he sees as strained and pretentious in his prose, yet it is the critic’s writing at this key point that wins the laurels for strained, silly, and downright incontinent preciosity.  It’s sheer misdirection, in order to distract his readers from the utter banality of the novel he’s really calling for:  A kid growing up in the Bronx!  What a story that would be, eh?  The old neighborhood, the crazy Italian-American family . . . Yes, that’s the book DeLillo should have written!

And it’s all eerily similar to what the Restorationist writes about The Corrections.  First he takes Franzen to the woodshed for mixing together too many fashionable genres and styles (in a passage that itself confuses genre and style, but we’ll let that go):

. . . there is domestic realism (a midwestern family); there is social and cultural analysis (a nasty Philadelphia biotech company straight out of DeLillo); there is campus farce; there is the broad Dickensianism which has decayed into crudeness in too much American fiction; there is ‘smart young man’s irony’ of the kind familiar to us in Rick Moody and David Foster Wallace (riffs on corporate gardens, on the politics of cuisine, on the Lithuanian black market); and there is, at times, an easy journalism of narrative style. 

But then he singles out one mode for approval and only tasks Franzen for having attempted to graft anything else onto it.  See if you can guess which one! 

But to be fair . . . there is also considerable grace, power, comedy, and beauty, and these qualities appear most reliably when Franzen is cleaving to the human, when he is laying bare the clogged dynamics of his fictional family, the Lamberts.  I do not mean by this [disclaimer coming!] the anti-intellectual faint praise that Franzen is at his most affecting when merely ‘telling a story’, when eschewing the theoretical or ambitious.  I mean that he is at his finest when being ambitious and even theoretical about the soul, when he is examining consciousness and finding, willy-nilly, that consciousness is the true Stendhalian mirror, reflecting helplessly the random angles of the age.

Ah (cue crashing – or is it tinkling? – cymbals):  consciousness, the soul!  And in its best setting, too:  the family!  For, as Wood goes on to rhapsodize, “what is larger, as a subject” – another crescendo?  This is positively Wagnerian! – “than the eternal corrections of the family?”  Ta-da!  The eternal soul!  The eternal family!  The eternal correctional institute of the Restorationist’s imagination!  And once again, the style at its most bombastic when the argument at its most banal. 

So The Corrections has a sweet warm chewy center after all, those wacky Lamberts.  Franzen even gets a pat on the head for offering a more human “correction” (get it?) to the cold and “coerced” intellectualisms of DeLillo (arch-nemesis in the comic book of the Restorationist’s imagination).  Wood can’t praise those Lamberts enough, and in very revealing terms:  “Alfred is the kind of adamantine patriarch”; “Enid is the kind of noisy, bursting mother”; “the Lambert children, like many of us, are really only honorary adults, ex officio.”  Yes:  Authors, show us what we already know!  Readers, demand what you already know!  The family, home of . . . the familiar!

“Family is the great determinism” enthuses the Restorationist. “One of the subtlest and most moving aspects of Franzen’s often distinguished book is the way he develops the idea of ‘correction’ as a doomed struggle against this determinism . . . This dream of correction is chimerical, of course, because family determinism tends to turn correction into repetition.”  Doomed struggles, chimerical dreams – hmm, what politics, literary and otherwise, do you think is being insinuated here? 

My last examples come from Wood’s review of Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex.  The critic gives this novel an overall very positive review, yet one feels that it has been selected primarily for polemical reasons and only secondarily for literary ones.  Middlesex bears many of the features which might mark it as belonging to the dreaded bogey-genres of ‘postmodernism’ or ‘Hysterical Realism’ or the big, overstuffed ‘social novel’, but the point of the review is to show us that it really, after all, has acceptable domestic values, and so we need not be alarmed if we find women and servants reading it: 

Much of Eugenides's comic charm resides in, and flows from, his loyalty to his Greek-American background. If he has a curiosity that seems sweeter than the average postmodern writer, the run-of-the-mill I.Q.-with-an-iBook, it may have something to do with a willingness to let his ethnic material speak for itself. Certainly, although his novel is blemished by elements of didacticism and prolixity, and he is not without the postmodern urge to turn clouds of suggestion into storms of fact, Eugenides has a simple confidence in his Greek material that disarms his vices.

And, a little later:

Yet once again Eugenides's charm, his life-jammed comedy, rescues the novel from its occasional didacticism. One can put it this way: a novel narrated by a hermaphrodite comes to seem largely routine, as if Calliope were simply rather fat or tall. A fact that might scream its oddity, and that might have been used again and again heavily to explore fashionable questions of identity and gender, is here blissfully domesticated.

Take it from the Restorationist:  where domestication is bliss, it's folly to be postmodern.  And all we have to do to be blissfully domesticated is to be “loyal” to our roots, the way Eugenides is loyal to his roots.  Presumably DeLillo’s would have been a better book to the extent that he stayed “loyal” to his Italian-American background, Franzen’s a better book if he had been more consistently “loyal” to his Midwestern background, etc.  Speaking of Restorationists, there really is something Burkean to Wood’s aesthetics, isn’t there?  With domestic realism his ancien régime? 

But kitsch-Burkean, and kitsch ancien régime. 

November 7, 2008

The Restorationist

In a previous post I argued that James Wood’s programmatic misreading of a passage from Joyce showed how the “reality” that lay behind the critic’s notion of realism was nothing other than “a concretion of stale custom, unconscious prejudice, and naturalized ideology.”  It’s interesting to go from there to his review of Monica Ali’s Brick Lane, which was published originally in the New Republic under the title “Making it New” and reprinted in his collection, The Irresponsible Self, with the title, “Monica Ali’s Novelties.”  These titles are tendentious; the review appeared in the wake of Wood’s heroic struggles to rescue the Common Reader from the spurious novelties of Hysterical Realism.  What is new about Monica Ali’s novel is how it “dares” – for Wood, anyway – to be so deeply traditional.  

Wood opens his review by noting the increase in Europe and the United States of contemporary fiction by writers from immigrant populations.  He tells us that 

“this new material has [a] . . . momentous service to perform, which is to return fiction to its nineteenth-century gravity. This it does by re-importing into the Western novel traditional societies, with their ties of marriage, burdens of religion, obligations of civic duty, and pressures of propriety -- and thereby restoring to the novel form some of the old oppressions that it was created to comprehend and to resist and in some measure to escape.” *

Whew, there’s a swerve at the end – oh, and by the way these were oppressions!  We’re glad he makes that disclaimer, because otherwise throughout the review he sounds pretty nostalgic for those “old oppressions.” 

Wood acknowledges the way these writers introduce new content into their novels, but, he goes on, “the novelty of Ali’s world is also a restoration, for it allows her, quite naturally, to inhabit a fictional realm in which prayer, free will, and adultery all have their antique weight.”  Really!  Free will flourishes in realms of clitoridectomy and bride abduction!  Ah, the “antique weight”!  How bracing it all is!  Or was, anyway, because unfortunately times have changed:  “Adultery has withered as a fictional theme because it drags such little consequence behind it nowadays,” Wood acquiesces glumly (take a moment to appreciate the dying fall of that nowadays . . . ).  This is James Wood as Restorationist, Wood in his High Restorationist mode.

In the name of “novelty,” he spends the bulk of the review applauding the traditional family values he finds in Ali’s novel:

- “Ali’s most daring decision may be her bestowal of what amounts to semiliteracy upon her heroine.”

- “Yet even when Nazneen has learned something, Ali takes care to show how her knowledge is framed in ignorance.”

- “Nazneen’s marriage is at the heart of this book, and Chanu, her husband, is its other leading character.” 

As it bloody well should be!

And the kicker:  “The power of Ali’s book is the way in which it charts its heroine’s slow accumulation of English, her gathering confidence as a mother and wife, and the undulations of her marriage to a man who she eventually learns to respect and perhaps even to love.” 

Yes, this is realism:  the inexorable movement towards compromise with “the real,” with social reality, that concretion of stale custom, unconscious prejudice, and naturalized ideology.  This is the “traditional” novel’s big trade off, in which characters get to enjoy the supposed autonomy of their priceless interiority as the consolation prize for being good wives and mothers and respecting their husbands.  (See Franco Moretti’s excellent The Way of the World:  The Bildungsroman in European Culture for an extended analysis of this of foundational novelistic emplotment and its concomitant ideology).  

And this is what makes Wood’s review so superficial, at best, and suspect, at worst.  Even if some of the “old oppressions” that supposedly gave the nineteenth-century novel its traditional “gravity” are things of the past, its deep structure of ideological compromise and accommodation is alive and well and available on the display tables at your nearest Barnes & Noble.  The most notable thing about Wood’s review of Brick Lane is how uncritically the critic reproduces this underlying narrative ideology, its cheesy uplift as much as its compromises and consolations.  Of Nazneen’s husband, Chanu, he writes:  “As Nazneen’s affection for him develops, so does ours.”  Wood kneels and kisses the rod of accomplished fact and urges his readers to do so, too.

But the undulations of Wood’s argument can’t hide the fact that, aside from the surface exoticism, there’s simply nothing novel about Ali’s novel.  It’s a well-written and deeply conventional work of Establishment Literary Fiction, dishing out some you-go-girl affirmation and uplift in the context of a lot of compromise.  It’s an ideal book-club book, its topics for discussion so blatantly obvious in the narrative itself that the questions at the end of the paperback edition are redundant.   


* Like most of Wood’s forays into historical explanation, this is an intellectual muddle.  Wood is somehow suggesting that “the West” in the nineteenth century was a “traditional society.”  No serious historian, anthropologist, or intelligent person thinks this; the only people who do are . . . journalists and politicians.