Book Reviews - Autumn 2008

Shaking Habit's House

Critic James Wood preaches a return to the realism of Flaubert

By Sarah L. Courteau | September 1, 2008


How Fiction Works; by James Wood; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 265 pp., $24

The first task of most readers contemplating a primer such as How Fiction Works is to get past a monumental sense of inferiority. Here are the best bits of all those books you haven’t quite gotten around to, strung together like opaque little pearls, and gilded with a bibliography spanning Miguel de Cervantes and John Updike. In a prefatory note, James Wood mentions that Ford Madox Ford claimed to have written his study The English Novel in 1927 from memory during a summer of traveling, while he himself merely used the books handy in his study to produce “this little volume.” Well, then.

Set those misgivings aside. Wood’s book is a slim gift delivered with erudition that never apologizes and doesn’t always explain, but graciously inducts us into the literary crusade he has been carrying on for two decades. Appointed The Guardian’s chief literary critic by the tender age of 26, Wood honed his craft during a dozen years at The New Republic, before The New Yorker tapped him for the A-team last year. During all that time, he has used wit and an astonishing literary inventory to champion his brands of truth and beauty and to censure ugly fiction.

And there is an awful lot of ugliness in Wood’s world. He made his reputation by taking critical aim at such juggernauts as Toni Morrison, Thomas Pynchon, and Updike. Born and raised in Britain, Wood is frequently accused of being too British in his failure to appreciate American sprawlers such as Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace, and Pynchon, who unfurl America in all its baseness and banality, its mangled language and nudge-nudge irony. For this manic mimesis Wood famously coined the term “hysterical realism.” Novelists who allow their own aestheticism to tint the fictional lens (Wood cites Updike, for example), differently as they may read, are guilty of the same crime: “the strenuous display of style.”

How Fiction Works doesn’t spend too much time on recriminations, however, for it is not a lynching party but a celebration. In 10 tight chapters, Wood mobilizes a standing army of examples from work he admires—from Knut Hamsun’s Hunger to (perhaps a trifle self-consciously) Robert McCloskey’s children’s classic Make Way for Ducklings—to trace the development of the novel and to cheer it through a modern Gethsemane of conventionality. How Fiction Works elucidates few ironclad rules—the novel “always wriggles out of the rules thrown around it”—but by those works that Wood rates successes and those that he rates failures, his standards are clear.

The novel as we know it, Wood writes, owes a great debt to Gustave Flaubert:

We hardly remark of good prose that it favors the telling and brilliant detail; that it privileges a high degree of visual noticing; that it maintains an unsentimental composure and knows how to withdraw, like a good valet, from superfluous commentary; that it judges good and bad neutrally; that it seeks out the truth, even at the cost of repelling us; and that the author’s fingerprints on all of this are, paradoxically, traceable but not visible. You can find some of this in Defoe or Austen or Balzac, but not all of it until Flaubert.

Those invisible authorial fingerprints make possible the “free indirect style”—what novelists sometimes describe as “close third person” or “going into character”—that Wood prizes. The practitioner does not pretend to omniscience (a near impossibility, anyway, in a world gone sour on universal truths) but shows us “things through the character’s eyes and language but also through the author’s eyes and language.” The development of free indirect style and the “rise of detail” are the great innovations of modern narrative.

Roughly a quarter of the book is given over to a discussion of character, about which Wood is passionate and partisan. He has little use for novels that favor information over character (another sin he has laid at the feet of the world’s DeLillos) or that throw their characters’ believability under the bus of a larger idea. He defends characters who make us care, who have an internal integrity (even if they are postmodern constructions like the protagonist in José Saramago’s The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis), and who aren’t measured by the yardstick of “moralizing niceness” that requires characters to be likeable. (It’s wickedly fun to imagine him sitting in on the book club Tom Perrotta describes in Little Children, where Emma Bovary is pilloried as a slut.)

Wood spends considerable time disputing the famous distinction E. M. Forster made in Aspects of the Novel between one-dimensional or “flat” characters and “round” ones, which Forster elevated as superior. Both kinds of characters can tilt at truth, protests Wood. Just look at the brilliant creations of Charles Dickens, vivified with a few bold strokes. “Subtlety of analysis” is what is important, and that is why there’s nothing inconsistent in admiring the quite different characters of Virginia Woolf, W. G. Sebald, and Philip Roth: “Novels tend to fail not when the characters are not vivid or deep enough, but when the novel in question has failed to teach us how to adapt to its conventions, has failed to manage a specific hunger for its own characters, its own reality level.”

He concludes with a defense of realism (whatever the adjective in front of it may be), which is frequently dismissed these days as old hat. Wood concedes that, in the hands of some, the “original grammar of Flaubert” has ossified into a conventional way of writing that he calls “commercial” realism. But the kind of realism that seeks to arrive at truth will never go out of style: “In our own reading lives, every day, we . . . encounter scenes and moments and perfectly placed words in fiction and poetry, in film and drama, which strike us with their truth, which move and sustain us, which shake habit’s house to its foundations.”

Like any other book that elucidates the author’s taste, How Fiction Works is intensely personal, but the word I scarcely appears. It is quite different from, for instance, Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer, a lovely, practical volume of warm homage and practical anecdotes, dusted with classroom chalk. The casual reader of a book like Prose’s is always conscious that the author is really making eye contact with fellow writers. Though Wood has written a single, modestly reviewed novel, The Book Against God, his instincts and emphases are those of a critic (as he has shown in two previous essay collections, The Broken Estate and The Irresponsible Self). An eloquent, exacting zealot, a bit Jonathan Edwards and a bit H. L. Mencken, he’s not bent on preaching mainly to the choir.

Anyone who pronounces so confidently on what is good and what is bad will attract his own share of criticism. Some charge that Wood holds dangerous sway in the world of letters, influencing a generation of young writers to conform to his preferences. Indeed, Zadie Smith, whom he charged with “hysterical realism” in describing her novel White Teeth, responded in The Guardian that while she might be guilty of writing “overblown, manic prose,” literature should be “a broad church,” and she and other writers in her vein “can only be who we are.” The same might be said of Wood. His rigorous belief system forces us to articulate our own creed. And that, dear reader, is to the good.

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