"BAD PAPER: The Bursting of the Fiction Bubble"

read it here.

July 22, 2010


An excerpt from a Harvard Crimson article, “Humor Reveals the Road to Faulkner,” on the subject of James Wood’s pedagogy (he holds, after all, the title of “Professor of the Practice of Literary Criticism”):

In James Wood’s popular class “Postwar British and American Fiction,” the first half of a lecture is invariably devoted to Wood reading aloud his favorite excerpts from the book under discussion. “Flip to page twenty-nine where Nabokov writes, ‘The cat, as Pnin would say, cannot be hid in a bag.’” Wood grins, before eagerly pushing forward, “Ah, yes, yes! There’s a great bit four pages earlier when Pnin gets dentures and Nabokov describes his tongue as ‘a fat sleek seal, [which] used to flop and slide so happily among the familiar rocks, but now not a landmark remained.’”

“What do you think about this passage?... Why is it funny?... Is it funny at all?... Is there another phrase you liked?... What made you laugh?” Wood asks. At first the students are taken aback by this barrage of surprisingly personal questions. After a half-minute of silence one girl gathers the courage to ask Professor Wood what the passage meant. He leans back chuckling in his chair before reassuringly answering, “Oh, I don’t have much to say about that bit. I’ve just always found it a good laugh.” Looking back on the class, I now realize Wood’s response is the most genuine reaction to the passage.

The professor’s unusual approach to lecturing immediately immerses his students in the milieu of the novel through short, funny excerpts, but more importantly it gives students permission to enjoy reading a book . . .

Ah, yes, yes! – I remember when this kind of charming thing was called “Affective Criticism.” Along with Moral Criticism – another of the distinguished Professor’s specialties – it was supposed to have gone out with the daguerreotype and ladies’ finishing schools. I can just see the final exam: What do you think of Elizabeth’s decision at the end of the novel? Would you have made the same choice? Discuss. No doubt it’s the English Department’s most popular course offering – among Journalism majors and athletes.

* (In the Brechtian sense.)


Frances Madeson said...

If and when the Harvard tuition-paying parents awaken, I see a seamless transition for Wood from English professor to copywriter (maybe even lead copywriter) on corporate publishing book club/reading group fiction guides.

I just glanced at the list of Harvard Trustees--high tech, too big to fail bankers and financiers, mega law--for whom Wood currently serves as Distinguished Valet, and I have to ask: Does this transfer of the primacy of reactive thought to the next generation really serve Empire? Aren't they anticipating any problems which may require creative solutions? Don't they want anyone to have those foundational intellectual skills in the next generation of elites?

These words from David Bohm's On Creativity (Routledge), Chapter Three, "The Range of Imagination" are instructive.

"...when a theory has been given more or less axiomatic form, the resulting appearance of precision, fixity, and perfect logical order has given rise to the impression that knowledge has finally arrived at a kind of ultimate truth. And so the axiomatic form can act as a set of "blinkers" preventing people from looking in new directions, rather than as a set of hints and clues pointing to contradictions and inadequacies in existing lines of thought." (54)

If I were young Mr. Gioia's mom, I'd feel kind of torn: proud that my boy's words were seeing and being seen in ink (maybe even by some of those inc. execs on the board(!)), but bad that the vessel of my aspirations and fondest hopes had so quickly and thoroughly become such a public suck-up.

Well, as Steven always says, "nothing is wasted!" Perhaps one day it'll be the stuff of a super sad true mom/son love story in which mom painfully realizes that her vessel is a vassal but she loves him unconditionally anyway.

Edmond Caldwell said...

"Distinguished valet" -- jeez, comrade Frances, I wish I'd come up with that. Spot on!

Frances Madeson said...

Thank you, comrade. It was Jonathan Ames' Wake Up,Sir! that first put me in mind of hidden valets. Recently, they've been popping up all over the place.