The Practice of Criticism: On James Wood's, "How Fiction Works"

I should say up front that James Wood is living my dream. A staff writer for the New Yorker, chief literary critic for The Guardian, professor of the practice of criticism at Harvard University, and a respected novelist to boot (and he's only five years older than I am!), Wood might be the closest thing we have to a successor to Edmund Wilson. So any criticisms that follow can probably be chalked up to little more than jealousy--the literary equivalent of suggesting that Wood has fat ankles.

How Fiction Works is a compact, even squat little hardcover, the very materiality of which seems bent on recalling an era and ethos of reading "before theory," as it were. Somehow the 4.5" x 7" format--coupled with wide margins, classic font, and running page heads that indicate the content of each page--manage to evoke the sorts of predecessors that Wood himself invokes: Ruskin's Elements of Drawing and E.M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel. The materiality of the book primes a certain approach, a certain horizon of expectation for the reader and seems to effect a first shift in readerly stance that Woods' criticism would encourage: attention to the craft.

If the title sounds like a dreary, mechanical textbook for Creative Writing classes the world over, in fact the book is as much for readers as writers. This is a work of criticism, not a Writers-Workshop-in-a-box. Nor is this a book which sets out to demystify the novel as if Wod were a member of the guild willing to share with us the secrets of the illusionist. While it is attentive to concrete realities of mechanics, How Fiction Works is not a disenchantment of the novel, disclosing to us the code or formula that makes fiction work. In fact, any reader will thank Wood for breaking open fiction in new ways in the opening chapter on narration alone. Like all good criticism, Wood names and articulates our intuitions and gut reactions. For instance, he names exactly the discomfort I have long felt about straight-up, confident, magisterial third person narration one finds in someone like Jane Austen (or Joyce Carol Oates, for that matter?). On this point he cites W.G. Sebald:
Given that you have a world where the rules are clear and where one knows where trespassing begins, then I think it is legitimate, within that context, to be a narrator who knows what the rules are and who knows the answers to certain questions. But I think these certainties have been taken from us by the course of history.

Wood goes on to provide a breezy but profound analysis of different kinds of narration which almost turns into a reverie on free indirect style. In this context he provides a stinging critique of Updike's failures in this respect in his 2006 novel, Terrorist, where the narrator's language refuses to bend "toward its characters and their habits of speech." Of course, some novels are exercises and experiments bent on seeing the extent to which this is possible. Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury comes to mind, but more recently, something like Kieron Smith, Boy in which James Kelman tries to be the ventriloquist of a boy from working class Glasgow. But such a project is always beset by a bit of a ruse. After all, how likely is it that a tough young Glaswegian is going to take the time to pen a 432 page memoir, even if it is in the dialect that Kelman seeks to reproduce?

Wood is out to explain how fiction works, not in order to provide a template for would-be writers to go enact a formula, but more for readers who appreciate good criticism as a portal into the further enchanting mysteries of fiction (as when we ask ourselves sometimes, "Now, just how does this paper-and-ink artifact manage to do this to me?"). While Wood tips his hat to Barthes, this is not a "theory-driven" account of literature. Indeed, there is something kind of "lunch box"--or rather, "tool box"--about it in its meat-and-potatoes attention to the basic elements of narration, detail, character, language, register, and dialogue (ending with a short theoretical riff on one of Wood's enduring interests: the question of realism).

The range of Woods' interlocutors is almost dizzying (from Homer to Cormac McCarthy), but a couple of heroes keep asserting themselves: Flaubert and Henry James, even thought both were prone to what Wood sees as the persistent temptation of the modern novel--an aestheticist wallowing in detail (see Updike). But Flaubert and James are simply the leading voices of a rich choir that Wood orchestrates, with parts for Cervantes and Defoe as well as Pynchon and Delillo.

It's on this point that I would register one criticism. In what is, without question, a landmark book that I have already profited from quite immeasurably, I do find Wood sometimes wears his learning a little heavily. To be more precise, there are times when he slides from being precocious to being just rather obnoxious. Take, for instance, an opening "Note on Footnotes and Dates" in which Wood feels it necessary to point out that "I have used only the books that I actually own--the books at hand in my study--to produce this little volume." Why tell us that? Perhaps to deflect critics who will decry books that have been ignored--though, in that case, the criticism would still hold, wouldn't it? For instance, one can imagine politically correct assistant professors of English lamenting the "Eurocentric" nature of Wood's book ("Where is the Indonesian, post-colonial fiction?!") and thus Wood trying to head them off at the pass by saying, "Look, I was just working with what I had to hand." But then the criticism would be: "Not only is this 'little book' Eurocentrist and still-colonial, but James Wood is! He doesn't have any Indonesian, post-colonial fiction in his personal library!"

Instead, what is intended as a mark of humble constraints (in producing "this little volume") comes off as backhanded pomposity. This is augmented by the function of several of the scant footnotes in the text which seem like little more than Wood showing off. These includes little asides which catalogue instances of self-plagiarism in Tolstoy, Dickens, James and McCarthy (p. 65); or the convention of allegorical names in Tolstoy, Thackeray, Wordsworth, and Evelyn Waugh (p. 115); or the cast of minor characters with writers' names in Proust, Bernanos, Updike, Jones, Tolstoy (again!), and others (p. 162). Methinks Wood doth indulge a bit. (Read: fat ankles!)

Finally, let me take up one particular piece of criticism in which Wood, contrary to his otherwise exemplary practice, seems to miss the point precisely because he fails to appreciate a theological point in literature. (In The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief, Wood has shown his superiority to a critic like Christopher Hitchens precisely in his ability to appreciate theological nuance.) The context is his marvelous discussion of free indirect style. Not surprisingly, he holds up Henry James' What Maisie Knew as a model. Though told from the third person, Wood notes how James' manages to make the narrative bend to the voice and world of young Maisie Farange, who is bounced between her divorced parents and attaches herself to one of her governesses, Mrs. Wix. Mrs. Wix had a daughter, Clara Matilda, who died tragically just when she was about Maisie's age, and Maisie often accompanies Mrs. Wix to Clara's grave in the cemetary at Kensal Green. Wood wants us to focus on James' ability to write from the third person in a way that invites us to inhabit young Maisie's confusion, torn between her mother (who speaks poorly of the lowly Mrs. Wix) and the governess, but also confused by the absence of Clara Matilda. He hones in on this passage:
Mrs. Wix was as safe as Clara Matilda, who was in heaven and yet, embarrasingly, also in Kensal Green, where they had been together to see her little huddled grave.
Wood suggests that "James's genius gathers in one word: 'embarrasingly.'" Whose word is "embarrasingly," he asks? "It is Maisie's: it is embarrassing for a child to witness adult grief, and we know that Mrs. Wix has taken to referring to Clara Matilda as Maisie's 'little dead sister.'" Wood is exactly right that "embarrasingly" is Maisie's language, and thus rightly notes James' ability to bend the narrative--even in the third person--to Maisie's world so that we hear Maisie and not (just) James. But Wood seems to completely misinterpret just what is "embarrassing" for Maisie. It is not witnessing Mrs. Wix's grief. It is, rather, the theological tension that even young Maisie experiences: how can Clara Matilda be in heaven and in Kensal Green? Wood seems to completely miss the also in the passage. It is the conjunction that is the cause of embarrassment.

These minor criticisms aside, How Fiction Works leaves one eager to read anew.