"BAD PAPER: The Bursting of the Fiction Bubble"

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March 1, 2009

Magic Beans

Fellow critics of Wood!  Hail – and farewell.  Our day was short.  We fought the good fight, but Wood's supporters bested us on the field of valor.  Or valour, even.     

The charge was led by Mark Sarvas at The Elegant Variation, with his recent post “James Wood’s Best Books Since 1945.”  The best books list was originally published in the Guardian in 1994 as a response to Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon.  When it comes to explaining the list’s criteria of selection, however, Sarvas wisely steps back and lets the wordsmith speak for himself:  Wood introduces his list by saying that he has tried to “avoid the ‘representative’, ‘important’ or ‘influential’ and [has] chosen, instead, books which I like, which seemed to me deep and beautiful, which aerate the soul and abrase the conscience . . .” 

Ah— the soul!  That has the ring of Wood, doesn’t it?  To “aerate the soul and abrase the conscience!”  What fineness!  I just have to let that roll around in my brain for a while:  to “aerate the soul and abrase the conscience.”  Yes, yes, I can feel it – it’s definitely abrasing something in there . . .    

Sarvas goes on to tell us that, besides the intrinsic fascination of the list itself, he has posted it for another reason as well:

I'm offering it as a corrective of its own to some of the foolishness that has cropped up around Wood of late.  He certainly doesn't need me to defend him but this list should give the lie to the popular cliche [I think Savras means “cliché”] of Wood as the hidebound dean of realism who thinks fiction stopped with Flaubert.  The list appears in its entirety after the jump, typed up exactly as it ran (with its idiosyncrasies), but I think you'll find some surprises.  Pynchon!   Barthelme!  DeLillo!  And quite a few others.  

This deft – even definitive – sally against Wood’s critics was quickly taken up by other blogging Woodies, an instant meme.  Daniel Pritchard at The Wooden Spoon lowered the volume on the gloating but communicated the same basic message:      

Over at The Elegant Variation, Mark Sarvas has posted the entirety of James Wood's list of Best-Written Books Since World War II. The surprises, at least I think they'll be surprises, for his many web-based detractors include: William Burroughs, The Naked Lunch; Toni Morrison, Sula & Beloved; Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49 & V; and Don DeLillo, White Noise.

“All this fuss about the man when all he wants is for us to talk about the books!” Dan adds in mournful appreciation of the essentially modest, reclusive personality that effaces itself in each of Wood’s unsigned reviews. 

Next to pass the meme along was journalist Alex Massie in his blog at The Spectator (Massie has also written for The New Republic and National Review Online): 

What's notable is not so much the list itself as the extent to which it contradicts the view that Wood takes a particularly docrtinaire [sic.] view of fiction. True, he may be most famous for his critique of "hysterical-realism" but there's more to him than that and, as the list makes clear, there are some novelists after Flaubert and James that he likes. Wood's detractors  - of whom there are many - might be surprised to find Pynchon, Vonnegut, Rushdie et al on the list. For that matter, I'm surprised to see The Satanic Verses make the cut...

Finally, belatedly, but inevitably, Nigel Beale joined the fray.  His post reproduced the entire list from The Elegant Variation and, rather than restate the meme in slightly different words, he economically quoted Sarvas’s original “Take that, evildoers!” statement of intent.  Beale does, however, introduce a twist, adding that the list “also undermines an extremely distasteful insinuation of racism put forward recently over at foolishness central:  Contra James Wood.” 

Isn’t “distasteful” kind of an odd word to use in this context?  But I keep forgetting, “taste” is what it’s all about.  Unfortunately Beale doesn’t tell us how the list is supposed to accomplish this undermining – could he be referring to the handful of writers of color in the roll-call of over ninety authors?  In that case the proportions are roughly the same as those in the list at the end of How Fiction Works, another ninety or so novels that include three by authors of color.  Wood himself says it best:  “I have used only the books I actually own – the books at hand in my study – to produce this little volume.”

No, the list proves one thing and one thing only, that James Wood knows how to put discrete items into a sequence.

As Stalin once pointed out, paper will take anything that is written on it, yet our four bloggers advance the list itself, its sheer facticity, as an open-and-shut demonstration, a definitive proof.  Where is the argument?  If there is one, it is of the type which usually appears in freshman composition textbooks under the heading of the Logical Fallacies.  It’s an “argument from authority,” i.e., something is true because someone big said it was true.  If Wood were to write “I am not a philistine” on a cocktail napkin it would be hoisted aloft like a graven tablet.  This isn’t critical thinking – it’s magical thinking.  But Wood’s own reviews take this form of spurious argumentation all too often; his ephebes learned it on the master’s knee.  To say that Wood isn’t well served by his supporters is the same as saying he gets the supporters he deserves. 

It’s a curious thing:  the anti-Wood legions (suddenly there are so many of us, we’re told) are supposed to be caught crushingly off-guard by the list, yet it’s clear in all four posts that the list’s contents have surprised the Woodies themselves.  Those who’ve actually spent some time thinking critically about Wood’s work, on the other hand, will remember that the master himself has resorted to this strategy of trying to bury opponents under a seemingly diverse pile of names.  In his reply to the editors of n+1 magazine in 2005, attempting to rebut the charge of “narrowness,” Wood wrote the following: 

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 . . . 


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. 

Those who have read this will hardly be blind-sided by Sarvas’s disinterred Guardian list (but then Wood’s opponents are generally better informed about his work than those who have adopted Jiminy Critic as their literary conscience). 

The point isn’t what books Wood might put on such a list, but how he reads them.  As I wrote a few months ago about Wood’s n+1 reply: 

To understand it . . . 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."  

Other examples could be adduced; they are there in Wood’s work for anyone who cares to read and think instead of genuflect.  It’s a little comic, actually, to consider the spectacle of a “critic” who asserts that the really salient, crucial thing about writers this diverse also happens to be the same thing.  It is reminiscent, in fact, of the way that the more intellectually-insecure grad students and mediocre, unimaginative academics deploy literary theory:  in article after numbing article we learn that literature exists only to demonstrate the eternal verities of (pick your theorist – Lacan, DeMan, Butler, etc.).  The only major difference with Wood is that instead of theory we get some warmed-over Christian humanism in a thinly secular guise.   

The Woodies point triumphantly to names such as Pynchon, DeLillo, Rushdie, and Morrison on the Guardian list, but when has Wood ever shown himself to be in sympathy with the kind of fiction these authors write?  Take the case of Pynchon:  Wood’s reviews of Mason & Dixon (reprinted in The Broken Estate) and Against the Day (here) – both strongly negative – do not take the approach of trying to account for the falling-off that must have occurred since the “soul aerating” and “conscience abrasing” wonders of V. and Crying of Lot 49, both of which appear on the list.  Instead, in the Mason & Dixon review Wood tells us that Pynchon hasn’t written a novel at all but rather “an allegorical picaresque,” and allegory, he goes on to explain, is simply inimical to the novel form.  Wood opens his review of Against the Day with one of his specious literary mini-histories, telling us in a spasm of Little England parochialism that the “two great currents of the novel” derive from Richardson and Fielding, but that the Fielding current – also Pynchon’s – is really more theatrical than novelistic, has done more harm than good, and ought to be avoided if one is interested in writing real novels.  But are V. and Crying of Lot 49 somehow different in kind than these later novels?  Do they represent Pynchon’s Richardsonian, non-allegorical “phase” or something?  Of course they don’t – the contradiction is not in Pynchon’s career but in Wood’s criticism. 

I urge everyone to read these two reviews for themselves the better to reflect on Pynchon’s appearance in the magical Guardian list.  Then go and reread Wood’s review of Underworld (in The Broken Estatewhere he tells us not how DeLillo might have written the same kind of book better, but that he wrote the wrong kind of book.  Go read his review of Toni Morrison’s Paradise ("distastefully" discussed in my last post), which opens with Wood’s animadversions on why magical realism in the novel is illegitimate and even morally destructive.  Again – not poor execution of an otherwise acceptable mode of fiction-making, but the wrong kind of fiction-making. 

So what if he says he “liked” Beloved or White Noise or The Crying of Lot 49, and was perhaps even telling the truth?  What bearing could this possibly have when the mere assertion or claim is put into the balance with the actual texts of his reviews?  It’s a basic proposition of critical thought that new evidence (and this list was clearly news to the Woodies) should be evaluated in the context of what is already known, that the incidental detail should be placed in the larger picture.  Go and do your homework, ephebes and Woodies, before you embarrass yourselves crowing about names on lists.  Think for a change, instead of just swallowing Wood.

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