Tuesday, August 19, 2008

How Fiction Works, According to the List of Works Cited in the Bibliography of James Wood's 'How Fiction Works'

Posted By on Tue, Aug 19, 2008 at 12:22 PM

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Well, a white person, or Ralph Ellison, sits down at a typewriter and...

Ok. I was really glad to see Walter Kirn take everybody's Best and Most Influential Living Literary Critic down a peg in the Times Book Review this past weekend, as the limits to Wood's approach have been bugging me for a long time. I've always thought that Wood is a hell of a lot better at writing about stuff he likes than he is at writing about stuff he doesn't like — sort of like a pre-self-parody Armond White, and like White his tastes run to the classical, with a fuddyduddyish strain of purism. I expect How Fiction Works to be a pretty good and illuminating manual on (and advocate for) literary technique as it exists in the vaguely defined realm of "realism", because Wood's a guy who can really teach you a lot about the construction of meaning in storytelling. I also expect the book to at best ignore and at worst be openly hostile to writing that engages with theory or literary history or language for its own sake. (I don't really begrudge Wood his taste, but I'd like us to start spreading our admiration around a bit, to critics like... well, actually, like Ben Kunkel, for instance, who are as good as he is when writing from a political perspective, for instance.)

I was also glad Kirn flagged Wood's paternalistic tone, which is pretty grating. From the Preface:

"[Roland Barthes and Viktor Shklovsky] come to conclusions about the novel that seem to me interesting but wrongheaded..."
And:
"[The questions I address in this book] are old questions, some of which have been resuscitated by recent work in academic criticism and literary theory; but I am not sure that academic criticism and literary theory have answered them very well."
Oh, opposing approaches "seem to me" to be off the mark, "I am not sure" that they're productive. God, I love the arrogance of that false self-effacement tone, I the Humble James Wood don't wish to deny the validity of the approach, it's only my opinion... and being my opinion I don't really have to explain it at length.

(Here, J. Rob Lennon says much that I agree with about Wood, but also rips into Kirn for the reverse-snob tone of his review, which is fair. It perplexed me, too, not least because Wood, who gets off on telling people that Pynchon and DeLillo and postmodernism and theory are ass-naked emperors, is nothing if not a reverse snob himself.)

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