"BAD PAPER: The Bursting of the Fiction Bubble"

read it here.

January 31, 2010

Woodcutter's Weekend

From A.D. Jameson's critique of How Fiction Works at Big Other:

Literary critics are storytellers themselves, and we appraise them by how compelling, and how useful, we find their stories about fiction. Wood’s own account is smug and small. Again and again he dogmatically insists upon fiction that’s written in the third-person limited, that enlists only the most appropriate metaphors and details, that employs a language that’s musical but not over-aestheticized, and whose plot takes a definite backseat to the characters—the all-important characters!—who should “[serve] to illuminate an essential truth or characteristic” (128). By the time that Wood is finished carving away at fiction, little remains of the art form that I know and love. But James Wood, ever the arbiter, ever the tastemaker, desires only a certain fiction: one that’s primarily truthful, stylized but never over-stylized, and never intrusive—like Goldilocks’s chosen bowl of porridge, chair, and bed, it must be exceedingly, prissily just-so. Unsurprisingly, Wood’s preferred fiction is realist, and bourgeois, and 99.9% dead, white, and male.

From Justin Jamail's critique of Wood's Paul Auster review, posted at The Revealer:

Turning now to the conceptual gobbledygook and beginning with the silliest example: “Saramago and Roth,” Wood writes, “both assemble and disassemble their stories in ways that seem fundamentally grave. Auster, despite all the games, is the least ironic of contemporary writers.” Had I read that out of context I should have thought that the first sentence was meant to disparage Saramago and Roth and the second to praise Auster. If there’s one thing popular writing suffers from it’s a surfeit of gravity and irony. I don’t know who the most ironic of contemporary writers is, but I don’t think I would enjoy reading his or her books. I am, by the way, looking forward to Wood’s forthcoming monograph explaining his method for separating those things which are merely or seemingly grave from those which are “fundamentally” grave. Moreover, I wonder what the “gravity” of assembling (or disassembling, as the case may be) stories has to do with being an ironic contemporary writer. The juxtaposition of the sentences suggests that Wood felt a logical connection between the two sentences, but I cannot find one. It’s as if he had said, “Saramago and Roth are blue. Auster, despite not speaking Chinese, is carrot-colored.”

The notion that narrative “games” must have as their goal the sort of irony associated with post-war European and American post-modern writers betrays a comically limited approach. As it happens, the narrative “games” at work in Auster’s prose come directly out of nineteenth-century American writers such as Irving, Poe, Hawthorne and Melville and, though an awareness of recent European and American literature is evident, the influence of post-war writing is slight. Wood makes no attempt to consider what it might mean for a contemporary writer to be so strongly connected to such nineteenth-century American writers (or, indeed, to those early and mid-twentieth century journalists and fiction writers whose influence is also felt in Auster). Complaining about Auster’s failure to live up to the standards of Saramago or Roth is like complaining that Chesterton doesn’t write like Dreiser: it’s as boring
as a tautology and half as useful.

And from Claire Messud's "Writers, Plain and Simple," the introductory essay to her guest-edited fiction selection in the latest Guernica:

Just over ten years ago, the Modern Library compiled a list of the 100 best novels of the twentieth century: only nine of them were by women, and Edith Wharton accounted for two books. Were there really only eight women writers of major significance in those 100 years? [ . . . ] When, in 2006, the New York Times ran a list of the best American fiction of the past twenty-five years, Toni Morrison’s Beloved was pronounced the winner; but she and Marilynne Robinson (for Housekeeping) were the only women out of twenty-two titles (and that’s counting Updike’s Rabbit tetralogy and McCarthy’s Border trilogy as a single book each). Just last September, when the international literary magazine Wasafiri solicited responses from twenty-five global writers about the work that has most shaped world literature over the past quarter century, just four women—Elizabeth Bishop, Mildred Taylor, Toni Morrison, and Quarratulain Hyder—were on the list. And this is in a world where women account for 80 percent of fiction readers.

Hey Claire, while you're at it, let's not leave out your husband's widely-acclaimed masterpiece, How Fiction Works, whose bibliography of over 90 works consulted ("the books at hand in my study," in his words) included only 11 titles by women writers (with Woolf and George Eliot accounting for two titles each), about the same proportion as in that Modern Library list you justifiably criticize. (And, er, only a single African-American, since you seem to be concerned about underrepresented populations...)


Jacob Russell said...

Noticed the image of the cover of How Fiction Works when I clicked your link to Big Other...I don't suppose Wood was much involved with the cover design, but it's spot on, ain't it! By god, let us never forget that's what all good grownups do! And what better distinguishes writers Wood approves of... they work at their craft! Work and work and work, like the good corporate wage slaves they are. Can you imagine Wood calling his book, How Fiction Plays?

Edmond Caldwell said...

Damn straight, Jacob. You lot -- get back to work!

Anonymous said...

Jamails and Jameson's analysis do a nice job of poking hole's in Woods' criticism. Messud, despite being born in Connecticut, is an inferior writer.

Chris said...

Again and again he dogmatically insists upon fiction that’s written in the third-person limited, that enlists only the most appropriate metaphors and details, that employs a language that’s musical but not over-aestheticized, and whose plot takes a definite backseat to the characters—the all-important characters!—who should “[serve] to illuminate an essential truth or characteristic"

The thing that gets me about James Wood is how preposterously arbitrary his version of literary history is. According to him it all comes down to Flaubert. Flaubert is the supreme master builder, the crucial forefather who created the art of the 20th century.

Well, no, actually. Flaubert is simply one of numerous pioneers who greatly influenced the writers who came after. In their different ways, so did other 19th century titans: so did Dickens, so did Chekhov, so did Dostoyevsky, so did Melville, so did Balzac, so did Henry James, so did Jane Austen, so did George Eliot etc. etc. Wood's logic is totally circular. He happens to prefer domestic fiction, so-called realism: Richard Yates, Jonathan Franzen's THE CORRECTIONS etc. He happens to dislike the "hysterical" novels of Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon, amongst others, and if not openly hostile, at least lacking in much understanding of the so-called French existentialists (Camus, Sartre, Malraux etc.), consequently he fails to grasp that Dostoyevsky, for example, has been just as influential upon posterity as Flaubert ever was. Arguably the greatest post-war American novel, Ralph Ellison's INVISIBLE MAN, stems far more from NOTES FROM THE UNDERGROUND than anything Flaubert ever wrote. But rather than deal with this, Wood just prefers to spin his own subjective fantasies of literary descent - his own personal caprices - as if they constituted some sort of objective fact.

Imagine a film critic who happened to prefer science fiction above all other genres of cinema. Imagine if he went further and claimed, "The crucial influence, the supreme filmmaker who changed the medium was Fritz Lang with METROPOLIS. It all comes down to METROPOLIS." Never mind Eisenstein, Dreyer, Welles etc. etc., it's all down to Fritz Lang because he directed METROPOLIS. Now, METROPOLIS is unquestionably a very influential film, but a critic who zeroed in on this particular influence, and shortchanged dozens of other pioneering early filmmakers, would be perceived as a dank crank. And yet that's just about what Wood is doing with his fantasy version of literary descent! And people admire him for it!

Gerard said...

Auster is still a flimsy, pretentious writer, and I think Wood gets at just how he is so pretty well. The article hardly turns on the comparison with Saramago and Roth. The only Auster I find I can reread without wincing is his memoir of his father (The Invention of Solitude.) There at least his investigation of life's aporias is *felt* instead of, as Wood rightly suggests, merely asserted.

The Claire Messud thing is, however, pretty funny under the circumstances. I was looking at the highest rated books on *the complete review* the other day. There were about 3 women in the list of the As and A+s. Not impressive.

Steven Augustine said...

"And people admire him for it!"

That initial effect appears to be fading.

mike said...

As much as I generally dislike Wood and appreciate this blog's persistent deflation of him, I still think he was almost entirely correct in his assessment of Auster. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

A D Jameson said...

@Chris: You really nailed it there.