The entire book is built around a concept he calls “free indirect style,” which essentially refers to a prose style for which Gustave Flaubert is largely responsible. One of the hallmarks of this style is that the language is most often experienced by the reader to be that of the book’s narrator or protagonist. Cases, therefore, where a description or word choice does not suit the narrator, and therefor invokes the author, are seen by James Wood as essentially a flaw. Well, at least an inferior style.
A bunch of people posted responses, and I posted a couple of responses, and Shya posted a couple of responses. And then this morning I was going to post yet another response. But then it got long-winded (a weakness of mine), and went off on a few tangents, and then I realized I wanted to embed some pictures and YouTube videos (another weakness). So I made it a post. I made it this post!
I should confess that I haven’t read Wood’s book. (I was too busy rereading John Gardner’s On Moral Fiction.) And I should also confess that I like this “free indirect style” that Wood speaks of. It strikes me as useful, and I like literary conventions that are useful. Thomas Pynchon, for example, uses something kinda like it to wonderful effect in Gravity’s Rainbow (although I wonder whether Wood would consider that an example): he frequently shifts register to match whatever characters he’s writing about at the moment. It’s almost Wagnerian, in a sense—like leitmotifs:
(I wonder if Wood likes Wagner? But I digress.)
I’ll also confess that I think that if a writer adopts a particular style, then it would probably be a flaw to slip out of it without having a darn good reason. Or permission from the editor, or from the reader. Although that slip might also make the fiction more interesting. Flaws are often very intriguing!
But I wonder why Wood considers this particular style he’s decided to champion, and to write a book about, “superior” to other, “inferior” styles. Because it dates back to Gustave Flaubert?
That alone won’t convince me. I mean, I like Flaubert. I always laugh at the end of Madame Bovary; it’s a brilliant comedy. And so I’m predisposed to agree. But then I see this quote by Wood at the Flaubert entry at the Wikipedia:
Novelists should thank Flaubert the way poets thank spring; it all begins again with him. There really is time before Flaubert and a time after him. Flaubert decisively established what most readers and writers think of as modern realist narration, and his influence is almost too familiar to be visible. We hardly remark of good prose that it favors the telling of 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 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.
…It seems to me that Wood’s conflating “novel” with “modern realist narration” (a trick he probably learned from John Gardner), and what’s more “modern realist narration” that’s written with “traceable but not visible” style. (Which is indeed a paradox, and one I wonder how Wood resolves. Personally, I think Flaubert’s style is always very apparent, but I’m not reading him at the time it was written—nor in French! I wonder if Wood is reading him in French…) (Probably—I mean he taught at Harvard. Geez, I better be careful what I say about him.) (Ah, screw it, I’m never getting into Harvard.)
What does Wood think of Don Quixote? Or Tristram Shandy? Or The Red and the Black? (Maybe those are inferior works that allow us to get to Flaubert?) Well, I may be a fool, but I like those novels better than Madame Bovary, although I would never claim that they’re “superior” to La Madame. And that all literature is based on them. And that everyone should agree with me. Because that would be a rather silly argument. An arrogant, indefensible argument.
Meanwhile, there are tons of reasons why authors might want to use different styles—not to mention different registers, shifting from what words a character might know to words the actual author knows. For one thing, the author is the one who’s writing the book! So the author might be able to use the words he or she knows. Or even words that he or she doesn’t know! [First the characters got to "drive the plot." Now they get to determine what language the author uses? Hot damn! It won't be long before the characters are running everything! They'll be writing the novels themselves if we don't watch out—just like in At Swim-Two-Birds! Authors will no longer be needed! (It'll be like the Flarfnovel!) Despite the fact that characters are just words on paper, or the screen of my Kindle. (This must be the AI takeover that James Cameron's always warning us about!)]
Here’s just one reason why an author might want to diverge from a character’s register: “rhetorical effect.” Which is older even than Flaubert. (I think the Greeks invented it, or the Sumerians.) (Or maybe it’s inherent in language?)
Here are two hasty examples of fiction that shifts register for rhetorical effect. Please excuse how workmanlike they are; I scribbled them out on the bus this morning while eavesdropping on my seatmate’s cellphone conversation:
Jeb Hollins shuddered as he poked at the sleeping man with his fishing pole. “Why, it’s Ol’ Man Gantry!” he whispered to his pet frog, Golliwog, in awe. “But he’s been…mur-dered!”
Tears welled up in his eyes, but the adamantine orphan blinked them back.
This word “adamantine” sticks out just like Golliwog does from Jeb Hollins dripping shirt pocket; maybe we should excise it? …But then again, it could be an example of foreshadowing: maybe li’l Jeb, although at the moment as dumb as a cow patty (being backcountry an’ all) will someday grow up to become a US Senator? They have vast vocabularies and know words like “adamantine.” …Or maybe this is an excerpt taken from good realist fiction, after all: Jeb might read a lot of Wolverine comic books, and know such a two-dollar word. (The other one he knows is “invulnerable”; indeed, the very next bit is:
“Looks like Ol’ Man Gantry wasn’t invulnerable,” Jeb moaned.
Golliwog croaked in mournful agreement.
(Not that I’m suggesting Golliwog knows a word like “invulnerable”! Rather, he just hears the sorrow in his master’s voice. He’s like an empathic frog.)
Now the second scribbled example:
Little Lord Fauntleroy sniffed disdainfully at the boiled mignon he’d just been served. Didn’t Jeeves know that he’d wanted leg of lamb? He resolved imperiously not to suffer such insolence. Although ordinarily quite well behaved, on occasion the Lord could turn a real fucker.
Here we have a case where the narrator isn’t Little Lord Fauntleroy. And I say thank god for that; who would want to read a novel about that jerk written in close third-person? Hooray for narrative distance!
Still, this second example might fit Wood’s prescription: it might actually be in close third, but reminding us that our betters in the upper classes can have dark thoughts, even if they repress them. (Does free indirect style allow the author access to a character’s repressed subconscious? Gee I hope so, complex psychology being such a hallmark of better fiction.)
You have to admit, though, that this here useage of “fucker” foregrounds style. Not only has our valet Jeeves brought the wrong meat, but now he’s not withdrawing obediently. (And what’s up with the sexual undertones lurking behind that word “withdraw”? Is that how authors are supposed to seduce their readers? “Don’t worry, I’ll be good this time—I’ll withdraw.”)
Maybe it’s OK if authors, like decent valets, reveal their hands only occasionally? Like, maybe Lord Wood will give them permission to foreground style once every five pages? Every ten?
What does Wood think of rhetorical devices like simile and personification? Or even simple dialog tags? All of these things remind me that I’m reading a stylized book, and not looking at, say, a tree. They jar me out of the fiction, heaven forbid! How I hate turning pages! What happens when a reader is so persnickity that he can’t stop seeing the author’s fingerprints? Even though the author has labored tirelessly, like Flaubert, to remove those fingerprints? What if the reader is god-damned Sherlock Holmes? Or autistic? Or mean? Then no matter how hard the author’s valet tries to disappear, the reader keeps spying that valet, quivering in the corner. Is that the valet’s fault? He’s just trying to be a good servant! An obedient servant! He wasn’t the one who stole the silver, who broke the Ming vase, who killed Madame Bovary! He took great care to wipe his fingerprints off every one of the doorknobs, the mantle, the bottle of arsenic… Can the author, in order to save his valet from termination, from arrest, from hanging, demand that this troublemaking detective of a reader take his grubby hands off of the book? And is there any hope for such an ornery delinquent?
(I’m not even going to bring up the Derridean idea, favored by the Oulipo, that no matter what the author does, it’s still the culture that’s speaking through him or her. Although it seems appropo.)
Well, I think that wouldn’t be only non-mainstream writers, or innovative writers, or experimental writers, who’d want to use rhetorical effects like the ones above (although I hope they’d use them better than I can). In fact, I think that just about any writer on Earth would be interested in having the whole wide arrays of rhetoric and style open for consideration and employment. (That’s why writers—and, indeed, anyone who received a formal education—were once trained in rhetoric. For like thousands of years. If not millions of years! Even Shakespeare studied rhetoric, although he turned out to be pretty lousy, as Ben Jonson so liked pointing out:
Hee was (indeed) honest, and of an open, and free nature: had an excellent Phantsie; brave notions, and gentle expressions: wherein hee flow’d with that facility, that sometime it was necessary he should be stop’d: Sufflaminandus erat; as Augustus said of Haterius. His wit was in his owne power; would the rule of it had beene so too. Many times hee fell into those things, could not escape laughter: As when hee said in the person of Cæsar, one speaking to him; Cæsar thou dost me wrong. Hee replyed: Cæsar did never wrong, but with just cause: and such like; which were ridiculous.
If only Shakespeare had possessed a bit more discipline, more art (or Latin, or Greek), then he might have known not to violate the Aristotelian unities; I mean, why open your play with a tempest caused by a fairy who’s enslaved to a magician? Who could ever believe that? The lightning and thunder effects are so cheesy! And why begin your action in Venice, then move it to Cypress? What’s wrong with Venice? Or with London? Does Shakespeare have something against London? Why are his plays never set in London?)
What would Wood will wily Will Wordsworth have written? Now there’s a poet who understood his rhetoric! Too bad he died before Flaubert wrote Madame Bovary, though! It’s like with all those people who died before Christ was born, and who therefore can’t get attain the True Salvation, and get to Heaven. Poor Wordsworth must be in Literary Limbo now.
(Forsake not, dear Wordsworth! I still read you! I still adore you!)
…And, yes, I know that Wordsworth wrote poetry, not “narratives” (because narratives are never in verse!), and so he was inspired by Spring, and not by Flaubert—but I used him as an example because, well, because of the alliteration. Yes, style trumped all! And I’m glad of it! I shall never repent! And I’m guilty of even far worse sins than that! …It’ll be Literary Limbo for me as well, I suppose.
But let’s not forget what happened to James Wood! I saw it all, in Night Moves: Melanie Griffith left him for a stuntman (which is why James Wood hates stuntmen.) And then he got murdered by a rummy old pilot in the Florida Keys:
Don’t let that happen to you! Embrace a visible style!