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Uncover Your Tracks: A Preliminary Critique of James Wood’s How Fiction Works

Who knows what all is down there?

Shya posted something two days ago about James Wood’s How Fiction Works, in which Wood advocates the use of “free indirect style”:

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!

  • A. D. Jameson is the author of five books, most recently I FIND YOUR LACK OF FAITH DISTURBING: STAR WARS AND THE TRIUMPH OF GEEK CULTURE and CINEMAPS: AN ATLAS OF 35 GREAT MOVIES (with artist Andrew DeGraff). Last May, he received his Ph.D. in Creative Writing from the Program for Writers at UIC.

42 thoughts on “Uncover Your Tracks: A Preliminary Critique of James Wood’s How Fiction Works

  1. I like the tone of this post. But I fear I may have oversimplified Wood’s perspective on the matter. He likes many books in which the author does very much call attention to himself, like Pnin. I’m also just about to read a passage in the book about Don Quixote, so more on that later, maybe.

    I certainly know, for instance, that he’d agree that “realism” is no more than a collection of conventions. But he does seem to think that they are powerful exactly because of their ability to affect us and help us make sense of the real world.

    At any rate, I certainly side with you on two points, one of which you’ve made above: that the author should have full use of a complete spectrum of literary/rhetorical devices. The other you made in the comments section somewhere in my original post: that readers are smarter than they are often given credit for being, and in fact open to new readerly experiences.

    1. I’ll have to check out Wood’s book myself. But regardless of how your post characterized it, I’m curious about that quote at the Wikipedia, which was really the source for my reply.

      How does the novel “all begin” with Flaubert? How is Flaubert so decisive a novelist that we can divide the novel—the entire history of the novel!—into B.G.F. and A.G.F.? Even if he “decisively established what most readers and writers think of as modern realist narration,” how can such narration be conflated with “the novel”?

      And it certainly seems as though Wood is championing “invisible realism” at the expense of other types of fiction writing, although I’ll of course grant that his paragraph is presented totally out of context. But it looks to me like he’s conflating “good prose” with “the telling of brilliant detail,” “a high degree of visual noticing,” “an unsentimental composure,” and the ability “to withdraw […] from superfluous commentary.” And that it be stylistically invisible. Indeed, he says that this is such a given of “good prose,” that “we hardly remark” of it.

      Which is an argument I’ve heard many, many times before; it’s actually a very old and very real debate in literature. I tried to point this out by referring to John Gardner (see his debates with William H. Gass) and Ben Jonson (who criticized Shakespeare for his lack of verisimilitude). Curtis White likes to frame it (somewhat derisively) as the “stained-glass vs. Windex” debate. (It’s clear which side he’s on.)

      I like both realism and non-realist writing; I like all kinds of writing. What I dislike is when one side claims moral superiority over the other. Which happens all the time, all around us. I think that’s silly.

      (I’ll admit I also chafe when people discuss invisible styles. But I’m of the mindset that it’s the critic’s work to make all styles visible.)

      1. I certainly know, for instance, that he’d agree that “realism” is no more than a collection of conventions. But he does seem to think that they are powerful exactly because of their ability to affect us and help us make sense of the real world.

        I’m curious about this, too. I don’t doubt that realism can do this. But would Wood argue that this is exclusively realism’s province? If so, I’d disagree.

        I’ll check out his book, though. Perhaps he’s taking a more objective view himself, and simply describing “how fiction works”—all kinds of fiction. But from what I’ve read about him and his arguments elsewhere, I remain dubious.

        But! I will read his book! I’m glad you’ve reminded me of it.

    2. Well, I just finished reading Wood’s book, and if anything I’d say you were too kind to him in your summary. His overall argument seems to be that not only is free indirect style (aka third-person limited) superior to all other points of view (his reasoning as to why is noticeably unspecified), but that the novel has been progressing toward its use, and therefore toward a superior form of realism. Which is superior to all other styles. Why this is so is, again, unspecified, except for that it’s the kind of writing he prefers.

      Along the way, he’s rather fuzzy on his definitions. He constantly conflates terms; for instance, he regularly interchanges “free indirect style,” “novel,” “realist narration,” “realism,” and “fictive convention.” And he ultimately ends up arguing that realism is simply “the desire to be truthful about life—the desire to produce art that accurately sees ‘the way things are.'” Which is “a universal literary motive and project, the broad central language of the novel and drama.” And which further more is “life brought to different life by the highest artistry.”

      In other words, he ends up saying pretty much nothing; the whole thing ends in a litany of platitudes. (By which point he’s claimed Kafka, Hamsun, and Beckett as realists.)

      And what is more: “And it [realism] cannot be a genre; instead, it makes other forms of fiction seem like genres. For realism of this type—lifeness—is the origin. It teaches everyone else; it schools its own truants: it is what allows magical realism, hysterical realism, fantasy, science fiction, even thrillers, to exist.”

      Heady stuff!

      Along the way, he’s actually quite dismissive of Nabokov (although he likes Pnin, for some reason), and of Pynchon, and DFW, and Barth, and Barthes, and Shklovsky. Although he claims that Barthes and Shklovsky are his “two favorite twentieth-century critics of the novel.” (I didn’t see any evidence of it; rather, I saw ample evidence that he doesn’t understand either man’s writing. Probably because they “thought like writers alienated from creative instinct,” whatever that means.) Oh, and he really dislikes William H. Gass, mainly because he doesn’t seem to understand Gass’s essay “The Concept of Character in Fiction.”

      And he also really dislikes women writers, I suppose, since he barely mentions any of them. (He discusses nine, in fact, and he crams three of them in in the last few pages of the book.)

      And it’s also not all that well written. And it also isn’t “a patient primer” a la Ruskin’s Elements of Drawing, like he claims it’s going to be in the Preface. (Maybe that’s because Ruskin “was not a greatly gifted [artist],” as he also claims in the Preface. Although the reason why he claims that is, like much else in the book, left unspecified.)

      That said, I like some of his close readings. His analysis of a passage from Roth’s Shabbath’s Theater (pages 198–202) is particularly good. And he conveys well his passion for fiction—at least, certain types of fiction.

      Overall, though, I think it’s pretty weak stuff. I’ll try to post something more coherent about it soon.

      1. Did you just read that book in a day?

        Are you the fastest reader east of the Mississippi?

        I can jive with everyone’s criticism of the man (James Wood). But come on, the guy is excited about literature and some people are buying it and I think what some (like me) take away is just a greater appreciation for the written word and stories. They could care less about his theories. His close-readings bring you closer to the text. He is a force of good, no?

        One of the only particles of advice I remember from John Gardener is not to use that or which so much. Mostly I remember what stories he examined.

        1. When I’ve read Wood I don’t come away with the impression that he’s “excited about literature”. I come away thinking how narrow is his scope and range, how unwilling he is to examine works outside of his narrow interests.

          There’s also this impression that he has diverse tastes, but the record proves otherwise. He’s hardly examined works in translation. His biases are evident as they are manifold. And most of his reviews are of books from the corporate conglomerates.

          Here’s an excerpt of a good summary of Wood’s reviewing record from two years at The New Yorker from Edmond Caldwell:

          These reviews cover twenty-four titles by twenty-five writers (if we include the translators of the Psalms and the Tolstoy volumes). Eighteen of the titles are fiction, or rather, with the exception of Lydia Davis’s Collected Stories, novels.

          A small number of the fiction reviews concern writers who have already attained some kind of classic or canonical status (Tolstoy, Orwell, Yates), while a roughly equivalent proportion take up relative newcomers such as Wray, Galchen, Hemon. The bulk of the reviews – easily over half – are devoted to the works of writers who, while not necessarily classic or canonical, have established reputations, such as Coetzee, Saramago, Robinson, etc. Sometimes, of course – as in the cases of the Powers and Auster reviews – the argument is that the reputation is undeserved.

          Fifteen of the eighteen fiction volumes were written originally in English, by writers living in the US, UK, or former Commonwealth (Australia), although some of these writers have international backgrounds (Hemon was born in Sarajevo, O’Neill is part Turkish and was born in Ireland, etc.).

          Only 4 out of the twenty-five total authors are women (Rivka Galchen, Marilynne Robinson, Lydia Davis, and translator Larissa Volokhonsky). But if the list is primarily male, it is even more “white.” There are no African-American authors, no Latino authors. Shahriar Mandanipour (from Iran) and Hari Kunzru (a Brit with some Kashmiri in his background, who has to share his review with Peter Carey) add a few drops of melanin, and one of the books is about Naipaul even though a white guy wrote it. (If we’re feeling really charitable we could throw in Joseph O’Neill’s Turkish half, but that’s about it.) There were no books by women of color. Interestingly, this breakdown is roughly equivalent to the proportions in the index of the “books at hand” that Wood consulted in his cozy study while writing How Fiction Works, a list of ninety-three titles including 3 by writers of color and around 9 women authors. (Yet Wood’s “wide reading” and “diverse tastes” are regularly extolled by his fluffers.)

          1. Well in his books there are essays on Sebald, Gogol, Chekhov, Babel and with the Flaubert centering in this new book, I’d say he doesn’t exclude lit. in translation.

            1. He does discuss a lot of lit in translation in this particular book. I give him props for that. It’s all pretty canonical stuff, but I don’t mind that none.

              He does ignore women writers in the book, though. It’s really silly when he shoehorns like three of them in in the final three pages. And then he mentions the realist tradition “from Austen to Alice Munro.” And I was like, huh? There are women realist writers? Well then why didn’t you say so?

              Read that last bit’s like the last line in Labyrinth:

            2. I didn’t say he excluded it either, but that he’s “hardly examined works in translation.” I guess four out of 25 ain’t bad, huh. Perhaps it would have been better to say new works in translation. And the fact that his choices are largely “canonical” and unimaginative isn’t concerning?

              I reviewed five works in translation (none canonical) last year, and two books about translating. 37 of the books I reviewed were from independent or university presses. 13 were by women. 8 were from people of color.

              Surely, Wood can do better.

              1. John,

                I still think this falls under the rubric of the ‘reviewing business’ which you have a much greater insight into. And I say this only in regards to big press books vs. small press books. Why don’t places like the NY times review Evenson and Marten? To my knowledge they reviewed Altmann’s Tongue and dismissed it in a very short review.

                He can do better, but aren’t there other forces at work?

        2. Yeah, I read it last evening. It didn’t take very long. It’s only 248 pages long, and there are like 100 words on each page. So it’s really only like 75 MS pages. Gotta love modern publishing! For that you pay $24. (I got it out of the library.)

          I just finished writing the first part of my in-depth critique of it. And I’ll agree: the guy is excited about literature.

          Certain literature.

          His book’s lousy, though. Speak truth to power! (I learned that from Zinn.)

          1. Sure, every one is entitled to like and promote whatever they like. But to tout Wood as a great critic with an expansive range just isn’t consistent with his record.

                1. Certain literature – agreed. But he is talking about literature. I think it’s easy to criticize anyone about not being comprehensive enough. Don’t you think the NY’er has some say about what he reviews? They want a big piece on Auster and Saramago, because people know it. It’s the magazine BUSINESS.

                  Incidentally another popular critic Sven Birkets wrote a wonder essay on Lutz and the new prose signal. Looking at many writers from the Lish school.

                  1. I’m happy when people talk about literature, but that only goes so far.

                    I don’t really have a stake one way or the other. I heard about the book, I read the book, the book is stupid, I’m going to criticize the book. If it were good, then I’d sing its praises.

                    Maybe his fiction is good; I don’t know. I hope so. I hate it when people write stupid books.

                    If he’s popular, and if he loves literature, then he shouldn’t write such stupid things about it. In this one book. Is what I think.

                    I mean, it’s really dumb. But more about that in…90 minutes or so! Gotta teach a class…

                    1. I still think you are being to hard on him. He sat down and wrote a book on literature. It’s able-bodied in some respects, not so in others, but the point is he did it. He could have sat on his ass and done nothing, but he did this.

                    2. I still think you are being too hard on him. He sat down and wrote a book on literature. It’s able-bodied in some respects, not so in others, but the point is he did it. He could have sat on his ass and done nothing, but he did this.

                  2. Greg,

                    Wood is a major tastemaker in a major outlet. That position merits greater scrutiny than what you’re saying.

                    As for the New Yorker having say about what he reviews, don’t you think he has some say about what he reviews? don’t you think that there may be some dialogue about it there? That said, what he reviews is also dictated, to a great degree, by the magazine’s advertising interest. That, too, merits scrutiny.

                    1. Yeah, I tend to agree with John. I’m not trying to be hard on the guy because I want to pick on him. But—come on. He’s on the staff at the New Yorker. And he’s a rock star professor at Harvard. And he wrote an academic book, with footnotes and citations and everything.

                      It’s not like he’s some precocious fourteen-year-old who needs a pat on the back. My criticisms will engage solely with the academic material in the back. Which he should be able to defend. (Not that I think he’ll even notice me.) If he can’t defend it, then don’t publish it, especially not with Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

                      My interest in the thing begins and ends with it being a work of literary criticism. It just so happens that he’s writing about what I wrote my Master’s thesis on (formalist constructions of character and narrative), so I’m particularly interested. This is my area of study.

            1. I agree; those are the best parts of the book. I shouldn’t call the whole thing stupid, because there is value in it.

              Wood’s close reading of that passage in Roth’s Shabath’s Theater, for instance, is quite good. The problem arises when he tries to branch out from there into a larger argument.

              I hasten to add, however, that the longest close reading in the book is probably four pages long. None of them are very sustained. I’d like to see him do more in-depth writing about books like that.

              It’s funny that he has (from what I can gather) something of a reputation of a more old-fashioned scholar, pre-internet and all that, because I don’t see any sustained thought in the book. It’s very snippet-based, very fragmented. 123 little vignettes.

              His criticisms of Gass, for instance, are quite absurd, and very flighty. He spends maybe fifty words criticizing Gass, spread over four or five sections. And his criticisms don’t make any sense.

              And when you go back and read the Gass essay that he’s attacking, it’s long, beautifully written, very moving—quite profound and dazzling, really. It’s kind of embarrassing (for Wood).

                1. Yes, he refers to page 44 in that book—a paragraph in “The Concept of Character in Fiction.” He complains about half of that paragraph (which he completely misreads), then proceeds to make incoherent criticisms about Gass in three or four other parts of the book.

                  It’s like 50 words all in all. (OK, maybe 200. But no more than one page, if you add it all up, and spread over like four or five sections. It’s hard to tell, because the index wasn’t fact-checked properly and contains numerous errors, grr…) (For this you pay $24!)

                  His main criticism, besides not liking that particular passage (which, again, he misreads), seems to be that Gass is “skeptical” (he calls him that twice, without any clarification). He calls Barthes skeptical, too. In fact, he accuses Barthes and Gass of having a “skeptical universe.” Not sure if they share the same one. (Maybe it’s a time-share?)

                  And then at another point he says that Gass (along with Barthes and Patrick Giles and Rick Moody—quite a superhero team there!) is an opponent “of fictive convention” (233).

                  I don’t even know what that one means. Like, how does a “criticism” like that even get past an editor? It’s simply inane.

                  Oh, by that point in the book, Wood has conflated “realist fiction” with the term “fictive convention,” or simply “convention in fiction.” (He argues that Moody in particular is critical of convention in fiction. Wha–?)

                  This is after he conflates realist fiction with “writing done in third person limited.” Which he elevates from a perspective to a complete style.

                  It’s also after he criticizes a passage by Graham Greene…that isn’t even by Graham Greene! Instead, it’s a parody of Greene that he wrote! And then criticizes Greene for! Why on earth he didn’t just dig out a passage by Greene is beyond me… (228–230)

                  It’s pretty embarrassing. Like Greg pointed out, a lot of the close readings are apt, and I appreciate the guy’s enthusiasm for 18th and 19th-century French literature (anyone who likes Stendahl is aces in my book!), but his criticism reads like gobbledygook—like Flarf or something.

  2. “I’ve been listening to your ping-pong talk long enough.” – from the NIGHT MOVES trailer.

    That’s a good title too. I know this is off track but has anyone ever made a systematic study of how the Coens ripped off THE LONG GOODBYE for LEBOWSKI. Almost the same progression of scenes. Same casts of odd ball characters. Someone even goes to Mexico in both, but Mr. Gould showing the James Madison to the Mexican officers is much funnier! ‘Senor Madison!

    1. Yeah, almost everything the Coens do is a rip-off of something. But for some reason no one ever calls them on it. Too busy calling out Tarantino, I guess…

      I like Big Lebowski, though. Jeff Bridges’s best performance ever!

      1. I just called them out, my man!

        I love Lebowski too, I just wish more people saw The Long Goodbye. Five masterpieces in six years is quite a run.

        Seeing a few interviews around his upcoming Oscar coronation I never knew Bridges basically talks like the Dude. Watch his Charlie Rose interview for examples.

            1. I’ve always wanted to see it, but for some reason haven’t gotten around to it. But Bergman + Gould has got to be interesting, right?

              I’ve also never see The Serpent’s Egg (1977), the one Bergman did with David Carradine. I guess I’ve got to plan a “Bergman + 1970s English-speaking actor” double-feature.

  3. Hey Greg,

    I’m not sure what you mean by diverse.

    Okay, three of the seven are from women. One is a work in translation. Of the seven books he reviewed only one was from a university presses; all the others were from the “majors.” Two are from people of color.

    This is condescending and dismissive of Rushdie (a writer whose work he largely misreads):
    “Shahriar Mandanipour’s novel ‘Censoring an Iranian Love Story”'(Knopf) is gentle and charming—it reminded me of early Rushdie (without the annoying stuff).”

    I skimmed after that point.

    It seems you’re comfortable with his biases. But you’ll have a hard time demonstrating his diversity. Did you take a look at Caldwell’s breakdown.

  4. John,

    ‘Fairly’ diverse. There is one big name there. Six out of Seven is a pretty good average. True about the press breakdown, but I don’t see him playing any favorites with these choices (and I know you didn’t say that).

    I’m sure Wood has some say over what he reviews. Do we know the extent?

    RE: the Rushdie line – it’s big talk, it’s annoying – point taken, Bloom does the same thing – even worse

  5. I hate to leave you all in suspense, but my epic take-down of How Fiction Works is going to have to wait a wee bit longer. I have to go home and wait for an AT&T technician at my apartment. Can you believe that my DSL still isn’t working properly? Three weeks, five technician visits, four trouble tickets.

    The only good thing is that when I call them now, they treat me very politely.

    Although why they do I don’t know. It’s obvious I’m a sucker.

    And of course this had to happen right before the new Magic: The Gathering set comes out. How am I supposed to keep up with the Worldwake spoiler if I can’t get to MTGSalvation.com?

    * * * * Epic James Wood post this afternoon! * * * *
    * * * * Featuring every excerpt of Videodrome * * * *
    * * * * that’s at YouTube! * * * *

    Until then:


  6. I *love* the idea of voice inflection as leitmotif.

    I have no profundity in me tonight, but man. That’s great.

    1. Robert McLaughlin first alerted me to how Pynchon tends to change voice in GR when he changes characters. I imagine there’s some writing about it out there.

      I’ve never seen anyone liken it to a leitmotif (that’s my one contribution to Pynchon scholarship!). And, really, I’m being fairly glib; it doesn’t really work that way, structurally. Although maybe it’s a productive metaphor? I just couldn’t resist the perversity of (mis-)identifying a key stylistic element in Gravity’s Rainbow as Wagnerian.

      BTW, that “Let There Be Leitmotifs!” video embedded above is admittedly geeky/cheesy, but it’s a good introduction to Wagner’s use of leitmotifs, and the resulting impact on Hollywood scores.

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