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Tiny Shocks: Uncovering the Reductive Plot of James Wood’s How Fiction Works

A pleasant looking book.

[Update: As if this post weren’t long enough, there’s now a Part 2.]

On January 22, I read Shya Scanlon’s post “The Dull King”; on January 25 I read his second post “Cover Your Tracks.” Both were about reading James Wood’s How Fiction Works. Before that I’d heard of James Wood but hadn’t read anything by him; I knew some people liked him and some didn’t like him. I myself had no opinion about the guy. Nor did I have any real plan to read How Fiction Works. But still I posted a couple of comments on Shya’s posts, and Shya wrote back, and I wrote back, and before I knew it I’d written a very long comment that I turned into my own post, “Uncover Your Tracks.”

Then I thought what the hell and trudged through the snow to Columbia College. That was a fun trip; the library elevators weren’t working, and a security guard had to escort me up to the fifth floor. It felt like the normal world had gotten broken, and something exciting was taking place. I took that as a sign that I was on the right track. I went home right away and read the book from cover to cover….


So what is How Fiction Works about? Does James Wood really lay bare for us how fiction works?

No, he doesn’t. His agenda is something entirely different.

Wood opens with the implication that his book will be a primer on writing fiction, akin to John Ruskin’s The Elements of Drawing (1857): “Ruskin takes his readers though the process of creation. […] There are surprisingly few books like this about fiction” (xii).

Ruskin’s still-useful manual is highly practical. In it he charmingly presents his advice as “three letters to beginners,” providing numerous exercises: lessons in how to master shading, outlining, drawing natural shapes, employing color, arranging compositions.

How Fiction Works, however, is not a writing manual. It contains no exercises, and little discussion as to how one engages in the craft of fiction. Rather, Wood steadily reveals that he is more concerned with reading, and interpreting, and above all with evaluating works of fiction.

But his ultimate purpose, which is not made clear until the book’s final pages, is to launch an attack on the majority of fiction, selecting from it relatively few works to comprise the canon of his preferred style of realism:

Realism, seen broadly as truthfulness to the way things are, cannot be mere verisimilitude, cannot be mere lifelikeness, or life-samedness, but what I must call lifeness: life on the page, life brought to different life by the highest artistry. And it 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. (247)

Let’s trace out his argument.


Somewhat oddly, Wood begins his assault with narrative perspective, whittling it down to the third-person limited:

I can tell a story in the third person or in the first person, and perhaps in the second person singular, or in the first person plural, though successful examples of these latter two are rare indeed. And that’s it. Anything else will probably not much resemble narration; it may be closer to poetry, or prose-poetry. (3)

(This is the first clue that How Fiction Works will be nothing like The Elements of Drawing. What primer on writing fiction would start by instructing its readers not to use particular tenses?)

Why rarity should prove a valid metric for dismissing the first-person plural and second-person singular is not examined, but Wood never mentions either again (thereby dismissing much work by Marguerite Duras and Donald Barthelme, to cite only two prominent examples). Nor does Wood pause to consider the spaces between poetry and fiction.

Instead, he hastens on to his next target, dismissing the first person and the third person omniscient. To do so, Wood relates a conversation that he once had with W. G. Sebald in which that late author told him: “I think that fiction writing which does not acknowledge the uncertainty of the narrator himself is a form of imposture which I find very, very difficult to take (4).

Sebald’s point was that today’s authors can no longer rely, as Jane Austen presumably could, on readers sharing “set standards of propriety”:

I think these certainties have been taken away from us by the course of history, and that we do have to acknowledge our own sense of ignorance and of insufficiency in these matters and therefore try to write accordingly. (4)

We might think we hear in this echoes of Lyotard’s doubt in totalizing grand narratives, as well as shades of Adorno’s statement that “To write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Wood does not make those precise connections, but argues that “For Sebald, and many writers like him, standard third-person omniscient narration is a kind of antique cheat” (5).

For me, the obvious question here becomes whether there exist ways of writing that revitalize third-person omniscient narration. And there exist many successful examples of authors doing precisely that:

1. Authors can combine different perspectives. See Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler (1979), Kathy Acker’s Blood and Guts in High School (1984), Susan Daitch’s L.C. (1986), and Carol Maso’s The Art Lover (1990).

2. Authors can use strategic omissions to challenge the perspective’s claims of omniscience. See Harry Mathews’s Cigarettes (1987), and Jeremy M. Davies’s Rose Alley (2009).

3. Authors can juxtapose different styles of third person narration. See Steve Katz’s Saw (1972), Dave Sim and Gerhard’s comic series Cerebus (1977–2004), and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s graphic novel Watchmen (1986) (which also includes first-person narration).

Alan Moore routinely experiments with the limits of graphic narration.

4. Authors can employ humor and irony to undermine the perspective’s grand pretense to knowledge. See Jane Bowles’s Two Serious Ladies (1943), Donald Barthelme’s “The Joker’s Greatest Triumph” [collected in Come Back, Dr. Caligari (1964)], and Carol De Chellis Hill’s Henry James’ Midnight Song (1993).

5. Authors can take omniscience to such an extremely mannered length that it becomes absurd. See Yuriy Tarnawsky’s Three Blondes and Death (1993):

It’d been unusually warm that spring. The vegetation was much more advanced than usual. It really looked almost as in the middle of June. The grass was thick. It was bright green. It covered the earth like a thick layer of paint. The paint seemed shiny. It seemed still wet. It seemed to have been poured out of a can and to have spread over the earth. It seemed to have spread by itself. The earth therefore seemed tilted. The leaves on the trees were also much more advanced than usual. They seemed paint coming out of cracks. The branches seemed to be the cracks. The cracks seemed to be in the air. This was so in spite of the air being transparent. (13)

…to cite only a few possible strategies and examples. And, indeed, a mere one page later, Wood writes that “omniscient narration is rarely as omniscient as it seems” (6) and “so-called omniscience is almost impossible” (7–8). But rather than reconcile these new thoughts with his previous claim, Wood aims his sights on eliminating first-person narration, which he finds “more reliable than unreliable” (5). And so Wood dismisses the possibility of using that perspective, for reasoning that’s similarly murky. [Unreliable first-person narration is done away with as well, as “more often than not it’s reliably reliable. […] Unreliably unreliable narration is very rare, actually” (5–6).]

Once again, Wood fails to consider any first-person narratives that have considered these very concerns:

1. Authors can question their own knowledge claims. See Samuel Beckett’s The Unnamable (1953), Nathalie Sarraute’s Do You Hear Them? (1972), and David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress (1988).

2. Authors can push first-person to the limits of its claims to knowledge, creating absurd mannerism. See Alain Robbe-Grillet’s La Jalousie (1957), Raymond Federman’s Double or Nothing (1971), Piotr Szewc’s Annihilation (1987), and Kenneth Goldsmith’s Fidget (2000).

3. Authors can emphasize the artificiality of first-person narration, foregrounding the constructed nature of the first-person voice. See Michael Kelly’s Ulrich Haarbürste’s Novel of Roy Orbison in Clingfilm (2007).

4. Authors can use fragmentation and omission to diminish the narration’s veracity. See Mercè Rodoreda’s Death in Spring (1986), and Ann Quin’s Tripticks (1972):

I have many names. Many faces. At the moment my No. 1 X-wife and her schoolboy gigolo are following a particularity of flesh attired in a grey suit and button-down Brooks Brothers shirt. […] I am hunted by bear, mountain lion, elk and deer. Duck, pheasant, rabbit, dove and quail. He at first feels a little like George Custer at Little Big Horn. The enemy is all around and awesome. (7–8)

…again, these are but a few possible strategies and examples.

Free Indirect Style

Rather, Wood’s solution, and the only perspective that he proceeds to consider and discuss in How Fiction Works, is third-person limited narration, which he calls “free indirect style.” (Note Wood’s shift here from “person” to “style”; note also that Wood never addresses how this particular perspective escapes Sebald’s concern that readers no longer share “set standards of propriety.”)

Wood’s line of reasoning is obscure, but I think discernable enough. His arguments against first-person and third-person narration have little to do with postmodernist criticisms of knowledge, but with the fact that many contemporary writers and readers have grown too jaded for those conventions. Wood’s question is how realism can continue to lay claim to truthfulness in the light of that jadedness. In other words, Wood is looking for a way that realism can ignore the lessons of postmodernism.

As such, the third-person limited offers the author the best means for presenting information in as transparent a fashion possible, thereby convincing the reader that every word set down is true (or at least plausible). As Wood notes, the third-person limited is capable of “marvelous alchemical transfer[s]” in which words “now belong partly” to both the author and the characters (10). If a word is too clever for the character, then it’s the author’s. If it’s too naïve for the author, then it’s the character’s. In Wood’s hands, dramatic irony becomes a form of plausible deniability.

Wood goes further yet, claiming that free indirect style is the inevitable outgrowth of writing fiction:

As soon as someone tells a story about a character, narrative seems to want to bend around that character, wants to merge with that character, to take on his or her way of thinking and speaking. A novelist’s omniscience soon enough becomes a kind of secret sharing; this is called ‘free indirect style,’ a term novelists have lots of nicknames for—‘close third person,’ or ‘going into character’ (7–8).

Light bends around the Invisible Woman, making her invisible, and giving her force fields.

Again, this raises many questions. How and why does the narrative want anything? Narrative has no agency; it’s an organizing principle. And Wood writes that it “seems to want to bend around” its characters—does or it doesn’t it?

Such vagueness (and the strategic deployment of hedge words like “seems”) obscure rather than illuminate how fiction works. By Wood’s account, narrative first floats, then bends around a character, then merges with a character, taking on (pre-existing?) properties of the (pre-existing?) character? At this point, the character “seems” to “‘own’ the words” (9). Further attempts to clarify the literary mechanics prove similarly hazy:

Thanks to free indirect style, we see things through the character’s eyes and language but also through the author’s eyes and language. We inhabit omniscience and partiality at once. A gap opens between author and character, and the bridge—which is free indirect style itself—between them simultaneously closes that gap and draws attention to its distance. (11)

Where do we go from here? The words are coming out all weird.

By this point, Wood’s description of character is practically postmodern, reminiscent of the cyberpunk classic Neuromancer, wherein the computer hacker Case can “jack in” and see through the ninja Molly’s eyes. The reader might be forgiven for imagining that, for Wood, characters populate the landscape like sprites, or folded up flat inside the blank pages of yet-to-be-written books, waiting patiently but yearning for some hapless narrative to wander by and release them. Left unexamined is how omniscience [mere pages ago labeled “so-called” and “almost impossible” (7–8)] has been reclaimed, let alone fused with the character’s partiality.


Wood’s concept that narrative seems to bend around its character, though left unexamined, can be read as making a certain kind of sense: it is vaguely reminiscent of a view of character proposed by William H. Gass in his essay “The Concept of Character in Fiction.” There, Gass observes:

We pass most things in novels as we pass things on a train. The words flow by like the scenery. All is change. But there are some points in a narrative which remain relatively fixed; we may depart from them, but soon we return, as music returns to its theme. Characters are those primary substances to which everything else is attached. (49)

In other words, characters serve as touchstones that help organize the rest of the text around them. There are many, many words in Madame Bovary, but the words “Emma Bovary” keep repeating throughout it.

As humans, as readers, we are constantly in need of “stable” categories and concepts under which we can organize newly received information—we need mnemonic devices, and characters are such devices. If I tell you that “Sally was tall and trim, and had a tendency to take two sugars with her tea,” then you can file the information in that sentence under “Sally,” which acts as a fixed point, or a primary substance that words and ideas can go and be attached to. As Gass further explains: “the language of a novel will eddy around a certain incident or name” (49). Wood’s concept of a narrative that bends around its characters might in fact be another way of expressing this formal concept.

Wood, however, has no patience for Gass’s analysis. Regarding this very essay he writes:

I find this deeply, incorrigibly wrong. Of course characters are assemblages of words, because literature is such an assemblage of words: this tells us absolutely nothing, and is like elaborately informing us that a novel cannot really create an imagined world, because it is just a bound codex of paper pages. (103–4)

Wood’s summary of Gass is deeply reductive. Recognizing that a character is “an assemblage of words” is not, as Wood would likely claim, an exercise in formal solipsism. To realize this, we should recall the multiple debates conducted by Gass and John Gardner throughout the 1970s, which repeatedly circled this very issue. (Click here if you want to read more about them.) Gass tried mightily to convince Gardner that a character was:

any linguistic location in a book toward which a great part of the rest of the text stands as a modifier. Just as the subject of a sentence, say, is modified by the predicate, so frequently some character, Emma Bovary for instance, is regarded as a central character in the book because a lot of the language basically and ultimately goes back to modify, be about, Emma Bovary. (qtd. in LeClair 28)

Meanwhile, Gardner struggled to convince Gass that a character was rather:

an apparition in the writer’s mind, a very clear apparition based on an imaginative reconstruction or melding of many people the writer has known. […] In the good novel, the reader gets an apparition, a dream, in which he sees people doing things to each other, hurting each other or exploring each other or loving each other or whatever, and a tiny linguistic signal sets off a huge trap of material which gives us a very subtle sense of these imaginary people. (28–9)

I would argue that Gardner’s concept (of realistic, plausible character) is not precluded by Gass’s; Gass’s concept readily admits Gardner’s. One way to construct a “linguistic source” is by conventionally depicting psychologically plausible characters with whom an intended audience can relate, and upon whom they can project their experiences and biases. And Gass does not deny this.

I Can Has Character?

Rather, Gass’s goal is to find a way beyond only characters such as Emma Bovary, and to define, as broadly as possible, the mechanism by which characters are constructed in texts. In other words, he is describing a means, and not (as Gardner does) an outcome (and a conventional outcome at that). As Gass himself puts it later in the debate: “I will also claim that my view is more catholic. It will allow in as good writers more than his other view will; John lets hardly anybody in the door” (30). The non- and anti-realistic fiction writers are creating characters, too, even if their characters don’t look like Emma Bovary, or resemble anyone we’ve ever met.

“Sally was tall and trim, and had a tendency to take two sugars with her tea.” The words that this sentence attaches to Sally—tall, trim, tending toward the sweet—are plausible modifiers of something we might call a “Sally.” This is verisimilar writing, easily accounted for (and allowed) in Gass’s view.

But an author might instead write: “Sally was humped, humbled, hobbled, half-bonobo, half-crustacean, a pinkish minx who grew truffles in kerosene lamps.”

Here, as before, Gass’s description of character still works in exactly the same way. (Meanwhile, Gardner’s view will complicate, if not prohibit, the creation of such a monster.) The words themselves are irrelevant; Gass is defining a character purely formally. Very usefully, this definition explains how characters can belong to both realist and non-realist styles of writing.

Wood, like John Gardner before him, fails to perceive this. He rather seizes on one thing that Gass wrote in that essay: that Mr. Cashmore (a character in Henry James’s The Awkward Age):

is not a person. He is not an object of perception, and nothing whatever that is appropriate to persons can be correctly said of him. There is no path from idea to sense […] and no amount of careful elaboration of Mr. Cashmore’s single eyeglass, his upper lip or jauntiness is going to enable us to see him. (44)

This, I’d argue, is exactly right. Mr. Cashmore isn’t a person. A reader cannot, for example, marry Mr. Cashmore. Mr. Cashmore doesn’t have a social security number. He doesn’t have a body—just a few words that sketch out his hair, his lip, how he’s jaunty. Mr. Cashmore doesn’t eat. He doesn’t breathe. He is indeed nothing more than a word on a page—well, more than one word on more than one page (his name appears repeatedly)—each time modified by other words. As those words accumulate, as James assigns more and more words to the mnemonic “Mr. Cashmore,” we the readers have the impression of learning something about “him”—but that is an illusion. (It is due to this illusion that fiction works. I can tell you that Mr. Cashmore is secretly Cthulhu, and you might believe me.) We the readers, thus deceived, supply other details, based on what words we’ve already seen, or based on how this particular character’s name strikes us. And somewhere in all of that, we form an impression of Mr. Cashmore, and his character. (“Ah, he secretly has numerous green tentacles.”)

This is Gass’s meaning: That nowhere in the world has there ever existed a Mr. Cashmore. No matter how lifelike he may (or may not) seem, he is a literary construct.

Wood, railing against Gass, argues that James tells us all sorts of things about Mr. Cashmore, and that he can tell us more and more. And that eventually we will know a great deal about Mr. Cashmore: “The more paint that James applies, the less provisional will the character seem” (104).

None of this, however, is under dispute (although Gass would no doubt prefer to describe it in different terms). And it would be words that James applies, not paint (a curious metaphorical slip on Wood’s part, unless he’s describing a set of accompanying illustrations). But, no matter how many words go to be about Mr. Cashmore, Mr. Cashmore still won’t be, and never will be, a real person.

And what is more, James will never be able to supply enough words to completely describe every aspect of Mr. Cashmore. As Gass puts it:

Characters in fiction are mostly empty canvases. I have known many who have passed through their stories without noses, or heads to hold them; others have lacked bodies altogether, exercised no natural functions, possessed some thoughts, a few emotions, but no psychologies, and apparently made love without the necessary organs. (45)

Gass’s argument is that poor nonexistent Mr. Cashmore will never be anything more than the words spelled out on the page, and the sounds we think those words make, …. Our experiences with him are going to be markedly different from, say, our experiences with actual real people whom we know, and whom we can look at, and call on the telephone, and touch. And whom we don’t, presumably, spirit off into a corner and read.

Since Wood finds Gass’s account “deeply, incorrigibly wrong,” what alternative does he propose in its place? After asking this question of himself (100, 105), Wood hems and haws for a bit, then sketches out a few attempts at an answer:

There is no such thing as ‘a novelistic character.’ There are just thousands of different kinds of people, some round, some flat, some deep, some caricatures, some realistically evoked, some brushed in with the lightest of strokes. Some of them are solid enough that we can speculate about their motives […] But there are scores of fictional characters who are not fully or conventionally evoked who are also alive and vivid. (106–7)


Even the characters we think of as ‘solidly realized’ in the conventional sense are less solid the longer we look at them. (121)


Very few brushstrokes are needed to get a portrait walking, as it were. (97) [There’s that painting metaphor again!]

Wood’s response then, is essentially Gass’s, but lacking Gass’s deeper formal understanding—as well as his poetry. And yet Wood ultimately retreats from even this view of character, preferring to echo Gardner, and insist upon verisimilitude. Describing a set of fairly similarly-defined characters in D. H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow, he hastens to add:

Nevertheless, they [those characters] do possess blazing inner lives, and always one feels how important this inquiry into the state of the soul is for the novelist himself. (123)

The source of these blazing inner lives, as well as their nature, remains unexplored.

Wood does venture a bit farther than Gardner in that he allows for postmodern characters (107–12), although he doesn’t care to be overly reminded that they are words on paper (110–1)—he doesn’t like John Barth’s metafictional characters, for example. And he’s suspicious of the characters of the nouveau romancier (117), as well as B.S. Johnson: “Christie Malry doesn’t really exist for Johnson. He is denied before he is believed in” (119).

Not a good character! Don’t believe in him!

So it appears that belief is necessary. The character must be convincing, something that the reader will believe in. (Believe in how, I wonder? Must we momentarily forget that the character is not real? In other words, are good characters the ones that can pass a literary equivalent of the Turing Test?) Presumably, in order for a character to be believable, he or she must be plausible…and so, once again, as we saw with perspective, verisimilitude is in fact Wood’s criterion for whether a character is good or not, and therefore whether a work of fiction is good. (Wood avoids in How Fiction Works any discussion of absurdism, Dadism, surrealism, etc; his approach throughout the entire book is simply to ignore any kind of anti-mimetic writing.)

Wood’s view is the fetishization of character, and a rather narrow view of character at that. But Wood would still allow character, once it’s believable enough, to become the controlling concept—the limiting factor—of fiction. And Wood would have writers subordinate all elements of fiction to character: “there is almost no area of narration not touched by the long finger of free indirect narration” (25). (Throughout his book, Wood returns repeatedly to this point, emphasizing that all other aspects of the narrative—metaphor, detail, plot, dialogue, and so on—must be reconciled with free indirect style—that is to say, with that the character would think.)

I find it unfortunate that Wood fails to really engage with Gass’s essay, which is so polemical, so funny, so thought-provoking—and so much broader in scope and consequence than Wood’s own writing. While Wood mentions Gass a few more times in the book, he doesn’t say much that’s constructive: he calls Gass a skeptic (111, 239) (although he doesn’t say of what), and he says that Gass is an opponent “of fictive convention” (233)—I have no idea what that can even mean; particular conventions, or convention in general? (Gass’s fellow opponents include Roland Barthes, Patrick Giles, and Rick Moody—a pretty motley crew.)


William H. Gass isn’t the only narrative theorist whose work Wood misunderstands; he also demonstrates little understanding of Viktor Shklovsky—and this despite his claim in the Preface that Shklovsky is one of his “two favorite twentieth-century critics of the novel” (xii). (The other is Roland Barthes, whom he similarly misrepresents.)

Although Wood claims that his book will conduct “a sustained argument” with Shklovsky (xii), he mentions the Russian critic on only two further occasions. The more substantial one is in the chapter “A Brief History of Consciousness,” where he writes:

[T]he novel soon showed itself willing to surrender the essential juvenility of plot, in favor of what Viktor Shklovsky calls ‘unconsummated’ stories with ‘false endings’ (he was referring to Flaubert and Chekhov, respectively). (149)

This is highly misleading, as well as incorrect. Shklovsky at no point in Theory of Prose (or elsewhere) dismisses the importance of plot in fiction; rather, he considers it central. For him, plot is “a theme, into which a variety of motif-situations have been woven.” (Motifs he defines as “the simplest narrative unit”: a simile, a comparison, a myth; or a plot-point based on everyday events, like “an abduction” (16).) Shklovsky’s concern throughout Theory of Prose is to uncover the principles by which motifs are organized as plots.

Furthermore, Wood is mistaken in his reading: Shklovsky does not identify “false endings” with Chekhov, but rather with the Satyricon and Gogol’s “Tale of How Ivan Ivanovich Argued with Ivan Nikiforovich” (56–7). It’s only later that Shklovsky mentions Chekhov’s short stories at all—and then he does so in order to celebrate that author’s innovative uses of closed plots!

The passage in question comes in chapter 3 in Shklovsky’s classic Theory of Prose, “The Structure of Fiction.” There, Shklovsky relates the plots of a number of Chekhov’s short stories, demonstrating how they are based on “error.” That is to say, Chekhov delighted in presenting readers with story openings that imply they should be read in one way (“a man […] finds coffins at night in every apartment that he visits, including his own”), but then present new information that resolves the plot in an entirely unexpected way (“To elude his creditors, the coffin-maker hides his coffins clandestinely with his friends, who discover their surprise with horror when they get home”—”A Terrifying Night”). What begins as a horror story turns mundane: “The ending is based on a clash between the coffin as a mystical object in a terrifying story and the coffin as the property of a coffin-maker” (59). The reader, like the coffin-maker’s poor friends, are at first horrified, then relieved.

Not the kind of guy you mess around with…unless you want to come home to find a coffin in your apartment.

To reiterate, plot is essential to Shklovsky. The first half of this chapter finds Shklovsky wondering what makes a story like Chekhov’s “A Terrifying Night” a story, rather than just a collection of descriptions and/or motifs:

Images alone or parallel structures alone or even mere descriptions of the events alone do not produce the feeling of a work of fiction in and of themselves. […] But what precisely does a story need in order to be understood as something truly complete? (52)

Shklovsky’s answer is that, to be a story, the narrative “must have not only action but counteraction as well (i.e., some kind of incongruity)” (53), and so he proceeds to examine different kinds of counteractions. He considers, for instance, erotic stories whose plots are extended metaphors, revealing that a tale’s motifs may be rooted in puns (which are themselves incongruities in language). (Thus, Shklovsky finds a connection between the tensions of narrative and the tensions inherent in language.) He considers also stories whose plots are based on conflicting social traditions and values (53), or in conflict (“father vs. son”) (54).

From there, action meets counteraction, resulting dialectically in synthesis, or their resolution. The separated lovers are reunited, or else both die; the protagonist defeats the antagonist, or is instead defeated. Again, note the care that Shklovsky takes to connect this pattern of development with simpler literary devices. Just as in a riddle, or in a pun, which begins with one incomplete (mis-)understanding, then proceeds to a more complicated state of awareness, the plot proceeds from a state of incompletion to completion:

The sense of completeness, of a finished state, derives from the fact that the narrative moves from a false recognition to a revelation of the true state of affairs (i.e., the formula is realized). (56)

At the start of Hamlet, the Danes believe that King Hamlet has died from a snakebite, and that Claudius is now legitimately king (even if they aren’t happy about it). By the play’s end, the true state of affairs has been laid bare for all to see, written in both the abundance of dead bodies and in Horatio’s knowledge. And so the dying Hamlet requests of his friend:

If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart,
Absent thee from felicity a while,
And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain
To tell my story. (Act 5 Scene 2, 288–291)

Order hasn’t been restored—although some measures of it soon will be: Hamlet goes on to say, “I do prophesy the election lights / On Fortinbras”—but the court’s false recognition has been replaced. Hamlet’s sad life is transformed into a finished story—into a tragedy. (The reason why so many stories end with death is that death is a rather permanent state of affairs. As was marriage, at one time—and so comedies could end with a wedding.)

Without denouement, Shklovsky argues, we don’t feel “the presence of a plot” (54). (We might recall that denouement literally means the untying of a knot. Once the knot is untied, the task is done, and there is nothing left to do. All tension has been released.)

There are, Shklovsky argues, ways that tales may feel complete even if their plots are incomplete. The “false ending” is one such way; here, the plot does not resolve itself, completing a pattern; rather, the author appends onto the tale a bit of language that creates the impression of an ending (a description of the weather, or a summarizing statement made by a character) (56). (Shklovsky makes no mention here of Chekhov, who in fact did not employ these types of endings.)

Shklovsky also identifies something he calls the “negative ending,” which brings us back to Wood and Flaubert. In this example, the tale is left deliberately incomplete; in other words, Shklovsky is describing the kind of open ending made famous by works like The 400 Blows (1959) and other works of existentialist art:

Some viewers, upon seeing The 400 Blows for the first time, may feel cheated or dissatisfied by its (lack of) ending: “But what will happen to little Antoine?” But they don’t sit around in the theater, thinking that another reel is going to come on. They can recognize from other films they’ve seen that this is in fact the ending of the film, even if the plot, and Antoine’s fate, has not been resolved. And later, with enough experience, audiences can learn to enjoy these kinds of endings, and the ways in which their open-ended nature engages one’s imagination.

By Wood’s logic, The 400 Blows is a less “juvenile” film than Last Tango in Paris, which has a more consumated ending (in more ways than one).

However, Shklovsky does not privilege narratives with this type of ending over others with more complete patterns. Indeed, stories with negative endings depend upon our expectation that the story will be complete in order to work! “The story is perceived against the background of traditional stories with an ‘ending’” (57).

This perception is central in Shklovsky’s view of how artistic forms progress:

I would like to add the following as a general rule: a work of art is perceived against a background of and by association with other works of art. The form of a work of art is determined by its relationship with other preexisting forms. The content of a work of art is invariably manipulated, it is isolated, ‘silenced.’ All works of art, and not only parodies, are created either as a parallel or an antithesis to some model. The new form makes its appearance not in order to express a new content, but rather, to replace an old form that has already outlived its narrative usefulness. (20, italics in the original)

In contrast to Wood’s over-simplistic story here about the evolution of the novel beyond “juvenile” closed plots, Shklovsky presents a far more multifaceted—and representative—vision, in which narrative devices and forms are regularly rising in and falling from favor. Some cinema audience members in the late 1950s and 1960s were eager for films that ended more enigmatically; movies such as The 400 Blows, , and Persona looked fresh when viewed against other films. …So, too, however, did a movie like Breathless (1960), which presents a rather complete and predictable ending to its simple, familiar plot: Michel, the young gangster, is eventually shot dead by the police—but Godard presents this in a parodying fashion. (After being shot, Michel runs through the streets, then holds a conversation with his girlfriend Patricia, in an exaggeratedly long death scene). (See 3:00 through the end.)

“[A] device in a state of deterioration can still be used to parody the device itself” (38). We can see here clearly Godard’s love of the device in question (the gangster is ultimately shot by the police and staggers to his death), but also his suspicion of it—it’s too hackneyed, too naïve. His solution is that of many a postmodernist: to exaggerate the scene to the point of mannerism, at which point it also becomes lyricism. (This is much more than simple irony.)

Neither the open-ended or closed form is the other’s superior (although viewers might prefer one, in general or in particular works of art); they are better understood as alternatives that depend upon one another for their successes, and that are both available to artists. (By way of contrast, the American remake of Breathless (1983) ends more ambiguously. Perhaps Wood prefers it to Godard’s original? It certainly has more plaid pants.)

Elsewhere in Theory of Prose, Shklovsky writes: “The story disintegrates and is rebuilt anew” (17). From motifs and tropes can be built an infinite number of stories, some obeying conventional patterns of plot construction, others deviating from established conventions. There is no telos.


Wood mentions Shklovsky only two more times. The first comes in a discussion of a metaphor found in Pnin. In a footnote, Wood refers to the Russian Formalist concept of ostranenie, regularly translated as either estrangement or defamiliarization: “Nabokov is a great creator of the kind of extravagant metaphors that the Russian formalists called ‘estranging’ or defamiliarizing (a nutcracker has legs, a half-rolled umbrella looks like a duck in deep mourning, and so on.)” Wood reduces ostranenie here to a “metaphorical habit” that Shklovsky and the other Russian Formalists saw as “emblematic of the way that fiction does not refer to reality”—something solipsistic, then: “a self-enclosed machine” (26). He continues:

I prefer the way that such metaphors, as Pnin’s leggy thing, refer deeply to reality: because they emanate from the characters themselves, and are fruits of free indirect style (26).

In Wood’s curious, character-obsessed reckoning, it’s almost as though the character, and not the author, has thought up the metaphor. One has the impression of the character and author consulting at the top of every blank page, brainstorming over what words should fill out the text:

NABOKOV: So in this paragraph, Pnin, you lose your grip on the nutcracker while washing dishes, and then try to grab it before it breaks the bowl—I know that much. But what I need is something for you to call the nutcracker as it sinks.
PNIN: Hm. A nutcracker, eh? Let me see; I’ll get into character. [Begins pantomiming while speaking.] I’m washing the dishes, I’m sad, I’m distracted, I lose my grip on the nutcracker and see it start to sink—and I grab for it—and I shout—I shout—”Come back here, you leggy thing!”
NABOKOV [scribbling furiously]: “Leggy thing!” I love it! (And I think James Wood will, too!)

Indeed, Wood imagines something rather like this absurd scene (25–6). Meanwhile, he offers no argument as to why metaphors that are more verisimilar are more true (his essential argument), or less solipsistic—or if indeed Shklovsky is even solipsistic. (Solipsism seems to me an odd accusation to make of the Russian Formalists, who frequently stressed art’s social character. Furthermore, see Chapter 4 of David Deutsch’s The Fabric of Reality (1997) for an argument that realism is itself in fact solipsistic.)

Much later in the book, Wood returns to ostranenie, this time defining it as “the technique made famous by the Russian Formalists,” again reducing it essentially to metaphor (indeed, he reduces it on both occasions even further to personification): “Flame is as far from flowers, fish, handfuls, and wagging as can be imagined. Clearly this is the principle, if not quite the effect, of […] ostranenie” (208). Wood then goes on to say:

Obviously, whenever you extravagantly link x to y, and a large gap exists between x and y, you will be drawing attention to the fact that x is really nothing like y, as well as drawing attention to the effort involved in producing such extravagances. (209)

As we have seen, Wood dislikes when authors draw attention to themselves—why do they insist on being so vain!—and so he dismisses such extravagance:

The kind of metaphor I most delight in, however, like the ones about fire, estranges and then instantly connects, and in doing the latter so well, hides the former. The result is a tiny shock of surprise, followed by a feeling of inevitability. (209)

How far Wood’s defamiliarization—a “tiny shock”—is from Shklovsky’s actual ostranenie!

For Shklovsky, ostranenie was nothing less than the essential character of art:

And so, held accountable for nothing, life fades into nothingness. Automatization eats away at things, at clothes, at furniture, at our wives, at our fear of war. […] And so, in order to return sensation to our limbs, in order to make us feel objects, to make a stone feel stony, man has been given the tool of art. The purpose of art, then, is to lead us to a knowledge of a thing through the organ of sight instead of recognition. By ‘enstranging’ objects and complicating form, the device of art makes perception long and ‘laborious.’ (5–6)

Enstrangement (Benjamin Sher’s innovatively enstranged translation) is not mere metaphor. It is any artistic device that causes an audience to experience the artwork—and thereafter the world—afresh. It is an open-ended concept, because we cannot fully imagine every element of art that will elicit that gasp of surprise, and re-inspire our senses—although we can list examples (which Shklovsky does). “In my opinion, enstrangement can be found anywhere” (9).

What is more, Wood is wrong to consider ostranenie solipsistic, or the showy product of a vain stylist. In Shklovsky, ostranenie is a moral concept directly related to art’s vitality, and to life’s vitality. It is the shock we experience upon seeing The 400 Blows for the first time—but also the shock we feel upon watching a genre noir [say, The Big Clock (1948)] after we’ve spent a decade watching 1960s European art films. (This was my own experience; I had another, similar one, upon hearing Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” after a two-year abstinence from rock music.)

Ostranenie, then, is revolutionary in a Nietzschean sense: unsettling, but therefore also life-affirming. It refreshes the senses, and creates possibilities. As Curtis White describes it in The Middle Mind:

The restoration of those capacities that are most innately human is accomplished through ‘enstrangement.’ […] Shklovsky’s lesson is simple: the art of enstrangement itself is the most consequential social act. It is what art has to give, without apology, to the social. (84)

It is not, as Wood would have it, a solipsistic formal game; nor is it a tiny shock, a quaintly bourgeois turn of phrase.


Wood (thankfully) is willing to acknowledge that all fiction, even realist fiction, is artifice. However, he qualifies this admission with the claim that no reader should be able to see or hear this style: “Free indirect style is at its most powerful when hardly visible or audible” (10). Later he writes:

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 […] (39)

Wood concludes that in good prose, “the author’s fingerprints are, paradoxically, traceable and not visible” (39). This paradox is left unexamined, unresolved; the only clue as to how this is accomplished lies in Wood’s approval of styles (and only those styles) that vicariously seduce the reader.

As an example, Wood quotes a passage from Saul Bellow’s story “The Old System” that describes a passenger plane taking off. After analyzing Bellow’s writing, Wood asks, “How does this kind of stylishness avoid the dilemma we explored earlier, in Flaubert and Updike and David Foster Wallace, in which the stylish novelist uses words that his more hapless fictional character could never have come up with?” (As you can see, this is a central concern of Wood’s.) Wood acknowledges that this passage is stylized, but argues that Bellow is not an “intrusive lyricist, despite his high stylishness” (192–5). Bellow, then, despite allowing us to see some of the craft he’s employed to describe flying, still doesn’t let his style get in the way of conveying verisimilitude: “isn’t that exactly what the freedom of flight feels like?” (194). We might wish that Bellow’s Collected Stories, then, came with an air sickness bag.

Seduced by verisimilitude.

Jean-Luc Godard pokes gentle fun at this view of the audience in his film Les Carabiniers (1963). After entering a cinema, young Michel-Ange cowers with fright before the image of an approaching train; when the image changes to that of a young woman bathing, he approaches the screen and jumps up and down, trying to peek over the edge of the bathtub. (For a more detailed analysis of this scene, see Stephen Goddard’s “(falling into) the space between the screen and the audience.”)

The Scope of Fiction

Flaubert, Wood tells us, “fetishized the poetry of ‘the sentence’” (187). (Indeed, Wood ultimately criticizes this tendency in Flaubert, whose notoriously obsessive labor leaves him “vulnerable to the charge of aestheticism” (195).) Wood’s book has its occasional pretty passages, but mostly it’s written in a vague, airy style that seems little concerned with the consequences waiting behind the claims that it’s making. I see no evidence of anything like Flaubert’s famous perfectionism, his compulsive searches for the right word.

Throughout How Fiction Works, Wood writes in the manner of a dilettante: every two or three pages he selects a new subject to briefly examine, pronounce some judgment on, then discard. Many of his judgments are, as I hope I’ve demonstrated, vague to the point of saying very little, if not something inane; others are marginally more useful. [Wood’s at his best when performing close interpretive readings of author’s styles. For a superb example, see his analysis of different registers in a passage from Roth’s Shabath Theater (198–202).]

Along the way, however, Wood’s dull imprecision flattens the differences between whatever novels he describes. For instance, in his discussion of dramatic irony, Wood implies that all of the writers whom he mentions—James, Naipaul, Joyce, Austen, Chekhov—in fact employ free indirect style, checking himself only to distinguish somewhat between different types of this style: “mock-heroic,” “authorial irony,” “chorus narration.” [Later however, he implies that these types might be the same thing: speaking of the opening of Chapter 5 of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, he claims that “Mock-heroic is almost identical, at this point, to free indirect style” (21).]

Elsewhere he writes:

As a logical development of free indirect style, it is not surprising that Dickens, Verga, Chekhov, Faulkner, Pavese, Henry Green, and others tend to produce the kinds of similes and metaphors that, while successful enough in their own right, are also the kinds of similes and metaphors that their own characters might produce. (24)

And by the book’s end, Wood has conflated the very real and useful distinctions between words like “realism,” “truthful,” “lifelike,” “mimetic,” and “verisimilitude”; indeed, one of his primary rhetorical techniques is conflation:

So let us replace the always problematic word ‘realism’ with the much more problematic word ‘truth’ […] (238)

And at the outset:

[…] when I talk about free indirect style I am really talking about point of view, and when I am talking about point of view I am really talking about the perception of detail, and when I am talking about detail I am really talking about character, and when I am talking about character I am really talking about the real, which is at the bottom of my inquiries. (xiii–xiv)

Literary critics are storytellers themselves, and we appraise them by how compelling, and how useful, we find their stories about fiction. Wood’s own account is smug and small. Again and again he dogmatically insists upon fiction that’s written in the third-person limited, that enlists only the most appropriate metaphors and details, that employs a language that’s musical but not over-aestheticized, and whose plot takes a definite backseat to the characters—the all-important characters!—who should “[serve] to illuminate an essential truth or characteristic” (128). By the time that Wood is finished carving away at fiction, little remains of the art form that I know and love. But James Wood, ever the arbiter, ever the tastemaker, desires only a certain fiction: one that’s primarily truthful, stylized but never over-stylized, and never intrusive—like Goldilocks’s chosen bowl of porridge, chair, and bed, it must be exceedingly, prissily just-so. Unsurprisingly, Wood’s preferred fiction is realist, and bourgeois, and 99.9% dead, white, and male.

Throughout How Fiction Works, Wood systematically diminishes fiction’s enormous capacity. The actual art form is vast, and audiences delight in its diversity. It can accomplish a great many things: entertainment, instruction, journalism, shock, experimentation, verisimilitude, confusion. Its forms range from anecdotes to jokes to fables to parables; from morality tales to allegories to tall tales to dirty stories; from pulp genres like horror, sci-fi, fantasy, romance, war, thrillers, and westerns, to surrealism, Dadaism, and absurdism, to genres more enamored with realism: naturalism, regionalism, and minimalism; from comic books to zines to airport paperbacks to the “great books” on Harold Bloom’s canonical lists; from children’s stories to young adult novels to adult literature to adults-only novels; from the picaresque to the baroque to the romantic to the modern to the postmodern and well beyond; from the high to the low and back again; from the experimental to the utterly conventional. It contains room enough for even the quaint, timid stories delivered weekly by the New Yorker!

And as for art—that may be found in all of these places, in all of these types of fiction; high literary realism can hold no monopoly on it, despite how loudly its enthusiasts try to claim it.

Wood argues that Graham Greene’s a lousy writer (228–30), but I think he’s pretty good.

As for myself, I would have fiction in all of its excellent and infinite variety, or not have it at all.

If I can’t have my G.I. Joe comic books, then I don’t want my Tolstoy novels, either.

Works Cited

  • Gass, William H. “The Concept of Character in Fiction.” Fiction and the Figures of Life. New York: Vintage Books, 1971. Print.
  • Goddard, Stephen. “(falling into) the space between the screen and the audience.” Double Dialogues 7 (2007): n. pag. Web. 31 Jan 2010.
  • LeClair, Tom and Larry McCaffery. Anything Can Happen: Interviews with Contemporary American Novelists. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988. Print.
  • Quin, Ann. Tripticks. 1972. Champaign, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 2002. Print.
  • Ruskin, John. The Elements of Drawing in Three Letters to Beginners. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1888. Google Books. Web. 28 Jan 2010.
  • Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. The Norton Shakespeare. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1997. Print.
  • Shklovsky, Viktor. Theory of Prose. Trans. Benjamin Sher. Champaign, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1990. Print.
  • Tarnawsky, Yuriy. Three Blondes and Death. Tuscaloosa, AL: FC2, 1993. Print.
  • White, Curtis. The Middle Mind. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2003. Print.
  • Wood, James. How Fiction Works. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008. Print.
  • 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.

59 thoughts on “Tiny Shocks: Uncovering the Reductive Plot of James Wood’s How Fiction Works

  1. Boom!

    Wood is certainly better at talking about what he likes than about what he doesn’t. Had he just called the book “Fiction I Like,” and left out all the other stuff, it would have been a much better read.

    1. And really great post, by the way. I’m so glad you took the time to read the book and give a much-needed rebuttal to Wood’s restrictive and dogmatic attempt to define good writing.

  2. Fantastic post, Adam! Such a thoughtful and fair assessment of the book. I’d read it some time ago and was also concerned (annoyed, really) with Wood’s uninformed dismissal of both Gass and Shklovsky. As you’ve demonstrated here, Wood’s assessment of both is nothing short of sloppy. I can’t see how anyone who has read Gass’s fiction or his essays would ever come to the conclusion that he is against “fictive convention” (although, I’m still not sure what Wood means by that term). Gass plays with any number of forms, styles, and voices in his own fiction, all reaching stunning apotheosis in The Tunnel. Oh, and I, too, found Benjamin Sher’s introduction to Theory of Prose to be very helpful.

    Another thing: I really enjoyed the sense of openness in your post here, how, in contrast to Wood’s narrow perspective, you see so much possibility in the “fiction’s enormous capacity.”:

    The actual art form is vast, and audiences delight in its diversity. It can accomplish a great many things: entertainment, instruction, journalism, shock, experimentation, verisimilitude, confusion. Its forms range from anecdotes to jokes to fables to parables; from morality tales to allegories to tall tales to dirty stories; from pulp genres like horror, sci-fi, fantasy, romance, war, thrillers, and westerns, to surrealism, Dadaism, and absurdism, to genres more enamored with realism: naturalism, regionalism, and minimalism; from comic books to zines to airport paperbacks to the “great books” on Harold Bloom’s canonical lists; from children’s stories to young adult novels to adult literature to adults-only novels; from the picaresque to the baroque to the romantic to the modern to the postmodern and well beyond; from the high to the low and back again; from the experimental to the utterly conventional. It contains room enough for even the quaint, timid stories delivered weekly by the New Yorker!

    From this passage, one could conclude that, in your mind, there is no hierarchy of forms, of styles. How, then, can so-called canonical lists be equal to what some would consider disposables?

    Also, to what do you attribute Wood’s habit of rarely treating his subjects in-depth in this book, how, as you write, “every two or three pages he selects a new subject to briefly examine, pronounce some judgment on, then discard”?

    Lastly, what do you think are the sources of Wood’s “vague, airy style that seems little concerned with the consequences waiting behind the claims that it’s making,” it’s lack of “evidence of anything like Flaubert’s famous perfectionism, his compulsive searches for the right word.”

    Oh, and I enjoyed your imagined dialogue between Nabokov and Pnin.

    Thanks again, Adam.

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Shya, John.

      As for your questions, John:

      “From this passage, one could conclude that, in your mind, there is no hierarchy of forms, of styles. How, then, can so-called canonical lists be equal to what some would consider disposables?”

      I’m not sure what you mean by disposables, but maybe I do. I do think that things can be ranked, put in lists, etc. I like making lists of better and worse films and books each year, for instance, and I wouldn’t be shy if someone asked me for recommendations on what to watch or read. But I think it’s important to remember that the criteria behind such things are contingent, and that anything is only ever so good or bad within particular contexts. (Shklovsky is very good on this point. We are always evaluating new things in regard to what we already know. I’m amazed by how clear he makes this point, and how early on.)

      I think that people very often assume too sedimented a view of what’s out there, and how everything stacks up. But we all only ever see a little bit of culture at a time, and are always changing ourselves, and reappraising the usefulness of things around us… Anyway, I think that saying anything is better than anything else is much more complex than we often pretend it is. And it relies very much upon people sharing “set standards of propriety.” (I’m surprised Wood doesn’t see the cognitive dissonance between Sebald’s comment and his entire project. Why should I believe a word Wood says about a single book he describes, for instance? Seems like something he should have addressed.)

      As for the brevity of Wood’s critiques…I don’t know why he does that, although I don’t really like it. I prefer for things to be more in depth, myself. And I think there’s too much fragmentation these days. But. If I wasn’t feeling charitable, I’d say it’s because I think it’s easier to write 123 little things and then stick them together, rather than organize a sustained coherent argument like, say, Shklovsky or Gass do. But that would be somewhat unfair to Wood; I haven’t read his other books. (I did start reading his novel, though.)

      As for the vague, airy style…again, I don’t know. But I think it’s noticeable that he isn’t being all that careful in his language, and in his overall precision. Which is odd since he spends so much time praising Flaubert. Again, a cognitive dissonance in the work that to me stands out very sharply. (Part of my annoyance here stems from Wood’s criticisms of Gass and Shklovsky—and Ruskin! and Barthes!—who are all such beautiful, poetic writers.)

      I certainly don’t mind if anyone criticizes those guys, but Wood’s criticisms are simply wrong—and very sniffingly dismissive. He says of Ruskin: “he was an accomplished artist but not a greatly gifted one” (xi). And there’s no qualification, no explanation. What?!?!

      And he says of Shklovsky and Barthes: “[They] thought like writers alienated from creative instinct, and were drawn, like larcenous bankers, to raid again and again the very source that sustained them—literary style” (xii). Wood writes these kinds of things—he pronounces judgments—and he never supports them, and I never really know what he means. Shklovsky thought like a writer alienated from creative instinct? Does that mean he had no creative instinct? Or something else? (It’s very unclear.) What about THIRD FACTORY? Or LETTERS NOT ABOUT LOVE? I mean, Shklovsky wrote fiction, and it’s just gorgeous. Has Wood not read any of it? Or does his comment mean something else entirely? I don’t really get it…

      Cheers, Adam

      1. “I speak in a voice grown hoarse from silence and feuilletons. I’ll begin with a piece that has been lying around for a long time.

        The way you assemble a film by attaching to the beginning either a piece of exposed negative or a strip from another film.

        I am attaching a piece of theoretical work. The way a soldier crossing a stream holds his rifle high.

        It will be completely dry. Dry as a cough.”

        —Viktor Shklovsky, THIRD FACTORY


        1. Thanks, Adam.

          Hey, I’d like to hear some more about your “two-year abstinence from rock music” and the “shock” you experienced when you heard Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”.

          1. Hi John,

            There isn’t that much of a story, really. In college I stopped listening to rock music, preferring free jazz and 20th-century classical music. I sold all of my high school CDs (which included everything by Nirvana) and devoted hours to Mingus, Coltrane, Stockhausen, Cage, etc. Also Glass and Nyman and other minimalists. And John Zorn and Ornette Coleman. I felt as though I’d found the music I really liked. And that’s the kind of music I listened to for about two years—nothing else.

            Then one night I was driving around, and I didn’t have my CD player with me, so I turned on the radio, and Smells Like Teen Spirit was on. And I was blown away. I felt as though I was listening to a work something very radical, very experimental. It was like the first time I’d heard Stockhausen’s Hymnen, or Glass’s Einstein on the Beach—only in reverse!

            The next morning, I drove to a record store and (re-)bought every Nirvana album. I still have them! (In fact, I was listening to them while writing the above—along with some Albert Ayler and The Flying Lizards.)

            I learned from that little episode that I like a lot of different things, and that I don’t like to mire myself in any one genre. There are certainly times when I find myself listening to only one thing—I’ll put on La Monte Young’s Theater of Eternal Music and just listen to drones for days. But it’s nice to be able to follow that up with, say, Roy Orbison. Or Moriarty, this awesome new French band that I love. (Isn’t one of the advantages of the postmodern condition supposed to be that everything is made present for us?)

            I feel the same way about writing. I like that I can read an Ann Quin novel, then read a few G.I. Joe comic books (Larry Hama is a wonderful writer!), then read a Wordsworth poem, then read a Frank O’Hara poem, then read a Dan Brown novel (I thought the Da Vinci Code was great). Then something by Flaubert.

            I like what I like. Listening to different things, and reading different things, helps me appreciate each of these things; this is a very Shklovskian idea. And part of what irks me about How Fiction Works is how Wood wants to pare fiction down until it’s only one thing, one tradition. I’d go crazy if I read only the books he advocates—they’re superb books, and I love many of them—but I couldn’t read only them. And it’s wrong to think that a lot of the “great writers” read only “great books.” As I’ve pointed out many, many times (here and elsewhere), T.S. Eliot was a huge Sherlock Holmes fan, and stole lines from Conan Doyle—now that’s an impulse we can appreciate today! Who hasn’t felt a similar desire, to make references to the Super Mario Bros. in a poem? Or in a novel? Meanwhile, Wittgenstein adored bad Hollywood westerns. Think about it: he’s be working on the Philosophical Investigations, and he’d get to the point where he’d just throw his hands up, walk to the local theater, and watch cheap westerns. (He said he liked to sit as close to the screen as he could.) Again, as someone who frequently stops writing to watch music videos and funny cat videos at YouTube—I sympathize! And of course all of those things are part of the overall work. (How could they not be?)

            I won’t presume to tell others what to do, but I don’t think it’s all that healthy for anyone to just read or listen to or watch only one type of thing. The Situationists were very good on this point, and in connecting it to how it affects our everyday living. Which is why they so appreciated collage, and its enstranging effects, and created collage-based techniques like détournement and the dérive.

            So I tend to prefer critics like David Bordwell, or Kristin Thompson, or Brian McHale—who are all formalists, sure—but who all look at a wide variety of things. That’s one of the things I like about formalism: it tends to want to examine many different things—a la Shklovsky. (Check out his chapter on Sherlock Holmes in Theory of Prose—it’s marvelous! And fun! And it taught me a tremendous amount about reading and writing fiction.)

            Cheers, Adam

            1. I should add that the person who really gets it is Guy Davenport—now there was someone who appreciate a wide variety of things, and who appreciated the limitless connections between them!

              His essay on John Ruskin is so beautiful I could cry:

              And you know what they say about Davenport—it’s what Davenport said about himself: that he subsisted on fried baloney and Snickers bars…

              (Although I’ve always wondered whether he wasn’t making that up.)

  3. loved this, Adam – especially Gass & Gardner on what constitutes character, and Shklovsky’s discussion of the progression of forms:

    “The new form makes its appearance not in order to express a new content, but rather, to replace an old form that has already outlived its narrative usefulness.”

  4. I haven’t read the Gass essay you and Wood are referring to, so I have a question about it I’m hoping you can answer. When considering an author’s theory, I tend not to look at how “baked” it is–or rather, I do, but it is not my highest priority. Instead, once I have what feels like a basic understanding, I decide whether or not such thinking is *useful* to me as a consumer or practitioner of the theory’s subject. In this case, I’m thinking of this notion of character. Though much of what you say about where Wood falls short in his definition is correct, and trickles down, as it were, from his erection of a tower of mimesis–the farther from it one gets, the poorer the character becomes (though he does allow for quickly and/or flatly drawn characters, and in fact says he prefers the later)–it helps I think to think of his motivation in establishing character the way he does. I think his top priority is to affirm that character–like people–has a moral dimension. As you rightly point out, Wood fails to elaborate on his contention with Gass’s (inaccurately represented?) theory of character, but it seems to me that Wood fears Gass’s thinking implies that to question characters on a moral level is nonsensical. So my question to you vis a vis Gass is: is he in fact dismissive of morality as a high novelistic concern? Is he “emptily” structural in his position? Because if so, I’m more sympathetic to the patchy way Wood responds to him, because I can understand the spirit of Wood’s response. But if Gass’s theory, properly understood, does in fact allow for a way to understand the moral dimension of character, then I would agree that Wood has not added anything to Gass, and has in fact simply reduced (or tried to) the scope of their common subject matter.

    1. Hi Shya,

      I’ll write more on this later, but briefly for now:

      “I think his top priority is to affirm that character–like people–has a moral dimension.”

      I don’t remember Wood specifically mentioning morality in book, but to be honest at the moment his words and pages are swirling around like they would inside a snow globe, so it’s possible I’m just forgetting a section.

      Gass does address morality in FICTION AND THE FIGURES OF LIFE, the same collection that contains the essay that Wood refers to (“The Concept of Character in Fiction”): “The Artist and Society.” And I’ll talk more about that in a bit. But for now, it’s relevant to note that John Gardner’s primary objection to Gass’s writing, and to the postmodernists, was on moral grounds—hence his rebuke, ON MORAL FICTION (1978).

      It’s been a few years since I’ve read that book, and I don’t have it in front of me (though I’ll pick it up at the library later today), but from what I can recall of it, Gardner’s argument is that only realist fiction can be moral. That is to say, the author looks at the world around him, and tries to portray it accurately, and then readers can look at the fiction and learn from it things about the world. Gardner goes on to argue that if the writer is truthful in his mimesis, then the book will be truthful, and we will be able to draw moral truths from it. That is to say, the book will offer moral instruction. And Gardner then accuses postmodern and other anti-realist forms of writing of being unable to do this; hence they are not moral (they’re either amoral or simply unconcerned with morality).

      I’ll confess that I never found Gardner’s argument (which is admittedly more complex than this) convincing. I like Gardner a lot; I like some of his fiction, and I like him as a critic, even though I don’t agree with him all too often. And of course he was a superb classicist (his Gilgamesh translation is one of my favorites). But his argument as to fiction’s morality is, I think, much too simple.

      The problem lies in those very concepts of “realism” and “verisimilitude” and “mimesis.” They do not mean what a lot of people think they mean! For instance, “verisimilar” means “similar to truth” (“verum” + “similar”). From that we usually conclude that it means “lifelike.” But that’s a hasty assumption. For, as Pontius Pilate asked Christ, “Quid est veritas?” (“What is truth?”) That is a very complex question indeed.

      So if I write a work that’s very lifelike, but it’s not very truthful, then is it verisimilar? For example, I might write a story in which a black man brutally rapes and murders a white woman. In fact, I write a whole series of books about that, and each time I describe the rapes and murders in exacting, specific detail. I really focus on the tears and pain of the white woman, and the brutality and violence of the black man. I write dozens of books like this. Well, I’m writing something lifelike—that happens all the time, right? …But is it truthful? And if it isn’t, then why isn’t it?

      Maybe instead I choose to write a work that’s very surreal, and it looks very strange on the page (a man turns into a giant bug), but when you finish reading it feels somehow like truth; it feels like an accurate depiction of alienation. (It’s an allegory.) Or maybe it uses made-up words, but they sound like actual words, so they convey some overall impression of something in real life. Maybe it feels like how it feels to fall asleep. Or it’s about how sometimes real life itself doesn’t feel all that real—it feels fake, as though it’s a front for something bigger. (The goal of the Surrealists, of course, was sur + realism = above or beyond or super realism). Are artworks like that verisimilar? Even if they doesn’t look, from certain perspectives, like reality? (Consider Impressionist painting: from far away, it looks convincing. From close up, it’s dots or abstract strokes.)

      Wood in fact is aware of this problem, and although he doesn’t really address it, he does try to claim writers like Kafka and Beckett. He’s saying, well, the words on the page may look stylized, but the overall effect is lifelike. So they’re realists. …But I hope I’ve shown here that this is much more complicated.

      Meanwhile, mimesis literally means “imitation” or “mimicry.” And so it’s usually used to refer to art that mimics or imitates real life. But, again, that’s more complicated than it appears. As I noted somewhere else on this site, good realist dialogue doesn’t read anything like actual speech (and this is ignoring the fact that it’s written, not spoken). If you record all the conversations you have every day, you’ll see that there isn’t a single work of realist fiction that actually mimics or imitates the way people really speak. And the more you look at real life, the more and more this seems apparent. Real life is messy and chaotic and always going on and on and on. (I mean, people regularly speak at the same time. How does fiction represent that basic phenomenon?)

      Realism is something else entirely. Like all styles of art, it looks at the world and then takes things from it, according to its own particular principles. It selects its materials and subjects, and refines them, and stylizes them. And so on. So realism isn’t strictly mimetic; it isn’t necessarily simple reflection or mimicry. It’s not a one-to-one-to-one relationship, although some (like Wood) conflate the terms.

      Beyond that, there’s the whole question of perception. Is the world really as we perceive it? In many ways, no. There are many ways we can perceive it, and then imitate it. Look at psychadelic art: in many ways it’s highly mimetic, in that it tries to imitate or mimic one’s perception when on mushrooms or LSD. So is it realist?

      I’m being hasty here, but I hope that I’m showing to some extent how difficult these concepts really are to pin down.

      Returning to morality. What makes fiction moral? That’s another big question, and I’ll write more about it later, but for now, I don’t think one needs realism to be moral. In fact, Gardner’s argument reminds me of that old Catholic argument about how you can’t have morality without God. “You can’t have moral writing without characters, and good, verisimilar descriptions.”

      I don’t really see why you can’t. Gardner never was able to convince too many of that view (and the burden of proof is on him). If only realism is moral, what happens to the other arts? Is music amoral? What about abstract painting? What about dance—that’s very abstract. It all gets very complicated, and Gardner isn’t able to account for that complexity. Why can’t more abstract writing be moral?

      Meanwhile, what Gass and others like Shklovsky before him were trying to do, was to demonstrate on formal grounds how fiction was organized. They were trying to find basic organizing principles. The question of morality is another question entirely. They both do address that question, but they both perceive (correctly, I’d say) that an artwork’s isn’t directly tied to how realistic its character descriptions are. Or how mimetic they are. Or how verisimilar they are.

      OK, gotta run, but more about this later!


      1. Two things: you’re right, I think, with regard to the issue of Wood on morality. He’s not really concerned with it. I was conflating his argument with another article I was reading that mentioned Gardner’s argument with Gass. That said, this isn’t quite what I was after, but perhaps it’s unfair of me to have you answer for Gass on the subject of morality and fiction.

        Again, I’m really interested in the pragmatic expression of theory. So, for instance, what *happens* when we begin to look at characters as assemblages of words? Likely, new opportunities for what constitute character open up (as you mentioned above), and I like that inclusion, that potential. But do moral attributions to such language constructs cease to be as interesting?

        Note that I’m not using a logic of “validity” per se–meaning, I’m not necessarily after a framework that’s internally consistent, rather, a way of thinking and speaking about fiction that reinforces the way it can *matter* to me as a reader and writer. If by thinking of my characters as language constructs helps me build them more meaningfully, it’s something I’d be keen on reinforcing. If, on the other hand, it locks my attention into more surface concerns, then writing becomes more like a language game, like play, which, though potentially fun, is ultimately less interesting to me.

        Ultimately, when it comes to my own work, theory has to play itself out in practice, and I have to ask, “What kind of writer wants to look at characters as language constructs, and do I want to be that kind of writer?” Does that make sense?

        1. It makes perfect sense. And I, too, am interested in how practical any theory is. I’m a praxicist, not a theorist.

          As for what happens when one looks at characters the way that Gass does: many things happen. Or they don’t happen. Or can happen.

          For me, Gass’s view was a way of opening up what a character is, and breaking out of the strictly realist styles I was trained in. That benefited my work. (I was visiting a good friend when I first read that essay, and I ran to his room and woke him up, shouting—I was so happy. I don’t think he’s ever quite understood what I see in it.)

          Later, I wrote a thesis and eventually a novel that were both largely inspired by that single essay. So for me, this view was extremely beneficial. But I like approaching issues formally (in order that I might accomplish something). Gass’s view of character makes much more practical sense to me than Gardner’s does.

          Someone else might find Gass’s view completely impractical. Or someone else might use it to do evil, or to write bad fiction (which is worse than evil). They might write, as you note, language games that are interesting to them, and to five other people, but uninteresting to you, and to twenty-five other people. How to calculate the end sum? Twenty people unhappy, it would seem. Ah, but one of the six in five in the minority, thus inspired, will go on to write a novella that all thirty will like… And add yet the wrinkle that writing those language games kept the original author from beating his spouse…

          Hard to calculate.

  5. This was an amazing post, Adam! Holy cow!

    So glad to read such an intelligent rebuttal to the hoo-ha Wood spills in that book.

    Your examples of texts that revitalize third-person omniscient narration (and those that push the boundaries of first person) remind me why it is I like those books (and books like those books: experimental books).

    I’m gonna have my students read this post.

    (Also, I thought the cthulhu lol cat was funny.)

  6. I think it’s fair to point out, when including as you did the below quote (from the final section of the book), that whatever it is he’s trying to get at, this “lifeness”, includes and allows for books such as Saramago’s Blindness and Kafka’s Metamorphosis and Becket’s Endgame. Which I think complicates his particular form of reductivism. It isn’t the case, as most of his critics would have it, that Wood is writing to advocate only all the John Updikes of the literary world.

    “Realism, seen broadly as truthfulness to the way things are, cannot be mere verisimilitude, cannot be mere lifelikeness, or life-samedness, but what I must call lifeness: life on the page, life brought to different life by the highest artistry. And it 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.”

    1. I certainly agree that Wood likes more than just Flaubert and Bellow. But I think that the overall impression of HFW is that he dislikes a lot more than he likes—for example, anything not written in the third-person limited.

      And note how Wood justifies liking Kafka and Beckett: he claims them as realists! At which point Kafka and Beckett might reasonably exclaim, “I’m not sure I want to be loved that way.”

      Wood accomplishes this maneuver by defining realism so broadly that it ceases to mean anything. He says it’s “the truth,” or “the real,” or “life on the page.” You think that vague statements like that would be the beginnings of arguments, but for Wood they’re conclusions. As conclusions, they’re difficult to argue with, because—what is Wood actually saying? (Answer: He’s obfuscating, and not really saying anything.)

      Once Wood has done that—once he’s accomplished that obfuscation, that conflation (obfuscation and conflation are his strategies, mind you)—then he can claim anything he wants as “realist.” (“Realism” = “the things that James Wood likes.” Oh, that are written in third-person limited. That’s the one stable criterion!) So Updike is too overwrought, and therefore too much a stylist, and not a good realist. But Beckett—now there was a realist!

      …It doesn’t make any sense. Updike’s style is more overwrought and intrusive than Beckett’s? And therefore Beckett gives us greater access to the truth?

      I’m not going to get into the argument that Beckett is better than Updike, or vice versa. But I think it’s absurd to claim that Beckett is a realist while Updike isn’t (or as Wood rather implies, that Beckett is the better realist). The word “realism” actually means something; it has a real history. And it’s fine if Wood wants to redefine it—but then he actually has to do some work to redefine it. (And not just in a sentence or two, and not by means of conflation.)

      And, of course, at the heart of it all, Wood is always privileging realism as a genre superior to all other genres. It’s easy to see the absurdity of this with a little old fashioned Frankfurt School ideology critique:

      ADAM: Science-fiction is superior to all other types of fiction.
      SHYA: I’m not sure I agree with that. What about Kafka? He’s a great writer, right?
      ADAM: Oh, of course! And he’s actually a science fiction writer.
      SHYA: Hm…
      ADAM: The great writers are in fact Verne, Kafka, Wells, Asimov, and Delaney. (That’s the great tradition.)
      SHYA: What about Heinlein?
      ADAM: Oh, he’s not really a science-fiction writer…

      1. What’s kind of sad about the whole thing–and this you mention above–is that he seems to dislike a whole lot more than he likes. This, coupled by his obviously passionate love for the things he does like (A House for Mr. Biswas, for instance), leads me to imagine a man who feels like something is being taken from him, or is on the verge of being taken. A man who feels like history is literally passing him by, and that someone needs to step into the ring on behalf of a style of writing being impinged upon by post-modernists (Barth) and post-postmodernists (DFW, say, and Moody) from one side, and “commercial realist” (his phrase for authors who’ve taken parts of the holy tradition he loves and gutted it of most if not all its “truthful” elements) authors from the other side.

        His is a kind of text of panic.

        1. It’s not a new kind of panic. Ever since realism was developed as a literary style, someone somewhere has been concerned that someone else is plotting its destruction, and is on the verge of ruining literature forever. (How quickly it’s forgotten that realism, as a coherent style, is a latecomer in the history of literature.)

          Meanwhile, Wood could have saved time and written, “Go read John Gardner’s ON MORAL FICTION.” He still would have been misguided—but this isn’t a new debate at all.

          Indeed, when I saw he mentioned Gass, I thought he’d be referring to that specific debate. But he seems completely ignorant of it—at least his text makes no mention of it. It really is true that each new generation reinvents the conflicts of the past.

          (More about fiction and morality coming soon.)

  7. Adam,

    This sentence–“I would argue that Gardner’s concept (of realistic, plausible character) is not precluded by Gass’s; Gass’s concept readily admits Gardner’s”–does an excellent job of expressing where I’d argue fiction actually *is* right now. In the seventies, the question of who was right between Gass and Gardner made sense, but I think that writers coming up now no longer see those two positions as opposing, in any real sense…

    Which is to say, great post.

  8. Adam,

    You really hit it out of the park with this one. I still have those GI Joe comic books. Love those cliffhangers.

    If you send this out to somewhere (and you should) or AP picks it up, I think it’s Sabbath’s Theater.

    I watch those cat videos too.

  9. finally got a chance to read this all the way through. as a result, many nooks and crannies have been dowsed in light. your delineation of complex ideas without resorting to reduction, expressed with such clarity and logic, really does help me along my way in grappling with and figuring these matters out for myself. many thanks for this, adam.

    1. Thanks, Keith! I’m writing these myself largely to clarify my own thinking. A lot of these thoughts have been swirling around in my head for several years now.

      I really appreciate hearing anything anyone has to say, especially criticism.

      Cheers, Adam

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  11. Re: James Wood’s above comment about B.S. Johnson not really believing in Christie Malry, see this 3AM interview with Paul Tickell, the director of the film adaptation of Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry:

    3AM: The audience had to take the Malry character seriously.

    PT: Yes. One of the great English vices is knowingness and cleverness and nudge nudge nudge. Nothing is straight. You can’t present anything, it’s as if people are neurotic in the British film industry and British cultural life about having to be funny and about having to have a knowing position. It’s as if they are not interested in the subject, they’re more interested in what you’re going to think of them and their cool attitude. You get a similar attitude in the bourgeois sensibility of ‘proper’ literary fiction. We wanted to make something that the audience could make judgements about for themselves. So by thinking big about Malry it was like throwing the ball in the audience’s court for them to work out.

  12. Good Gravy, that’s some great work by everyone. What a breath of fresh air. Wood is something of a Mathew Arnold, completely reductive in so many ways and it’s so interesting that “belief” seems his mantra in the same way. This “reality” must be sacred and good and believed. It is morally reductive as well.

    Nicely done. Wonderful to see someone resurrect the work of Gass in this way (sadly, he is something of a gasbag in his own work–primarily his constantly alliterative essays–exhausting frankly); he is brilliant where Gardner (and Wood) seems so pedestrian and simple–the Fiction Police.

    Appropriate that you post about this would be Big Brother of Fiction at the Big Other.



  13. Great essay. I love Wood. I think you’re mistaken in your identification of him as a reductionist who prefers the dead white male writer to the extent which you claim. Read The Broken Estate and some of his other stuff and you will see perhaps that he is more open to novelistic variation than you give him credit for. If you take his stance for what it is and see how effective is the style he argues for in depicting realism compared to other styles I think you will see he is right on. Or maybe you won’t. But you made a number of good points. You killed me though when you said you liked Davinci Code. I get being open minded, but that’s some horrendous writing.

    1. Thanks for the response! All I’ve read by Wood is How Fiction Works (well, that plus some New Yorker essays), so my impression of him is entirely limited to that. I admit that other books might change my mind. That said, I think his argument in HWF is pretty reductionist (at least as far as I remember it—haven’t looked at the book since I wrote this post). I’m all for realism myself, but don’t think it makes sense to privilege any one style over any other (at least in theory).

      Da Vinci Code is in many ways crap, totally. But I also found it to be an entertaining read with good suspense and some fun puzzles, plus a gleefully fictional approach to European culture—Brown is full of shit, and I get the sense that he knows it. I dunno. I read the whole thing in one night while visiting my sister, and then I read Angels & Demons and similarly enjoyed it. I think any book that gets me from the first page to the last is successful in some regard. Even when dealing with trash, there’s better and worse trash.


  14. Ok maybe I should have said it differently. I think Wood feels that there are better ways than others to create realism in a fictional piece. The use of what James calls “free indirect style” for instance. Though the narration is third person it is as if we see things through a particular character’s mind thus bringing us “closer” to the character. But that is not the only way to create realism. Wood also talks about how a set of sentences can evolve along the way to convey a mood or give us an insight. So I guess what I’m saying is in creating realism there are multiple ways to get at it.

    Considering that I think Wood also doesn’t exclusively boil everything that’s good in a work of fiction to it necessarily having to be what we call “realism”. While there is some truth to your claim that he is enamored of writers from the old stuffy boy’s club a further look at novels he’s praised might show a wider array of interests than one might think. Just look at his works of criticism and essays. It’s there. Not that it’s the best example, but there’s an essay comes to mind Wood wrote about Keith Moon the drummer of The Who.

    Now “realism” and “reductionism” are just terms we use , which is fine, but I think that can cause us to pigeonhole. The point is Wood is arguing for what works best , as Nabokov said, to achieve “the highest pleasure” in reading literature, to experience that sensation he called the “indescribable tingle of the spine”. Call it whatever you want. Define it however you wish, but if it works, it works. It’s like what Gardner wrote about the “fictive dream”. Writing that works keeps us in the dream, bad writing takes us out.

    All this doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy a different approach or style of writing. We like what we like. There is “lesser” fiction I’ve read that gave me a bit of a thrill at times in my life. I read a Patterson novel, I think it was Cat and Mouse many years ago on a plane. Like how you enjoyed Da Vinci Code, I enjoyed Patterson. If you were a fly on Wood’s wall you might catch him reading Harry Potter or whatever. One day many years later after reading Patterson I discovered Marcel Proust and Swann’s Way. Read Swann’s Way straight through over a three day break. One of the more sublime reading experiences I’ve ever had. There’s a difference in both the effort one must put into reading Brown and Patterson and reading Proust and what one gets out of that experience. What I’m saying, in the end, is while I can dig reading whatever (there’s “better” trash, yes), reading Brown might be “gleeful”, but reading Proust can be life changing. Maybe what Wood argues for is the literature that approaches that level. There are ways to do it and ways not too. I think he, possibly, has found some semblance of what that kind of fiction is made up of or ‘how it works’.

    I appreciate your response.


  15. By the way did you happen to catch the PBS special on Philip Roth recently? What’d you think?

    And again thanks for responding previous considering i was way late to the discussion.


  16. Looking back again at your essay and some of your responses I think my reference to Wood’s Keith Moon essay is more appropriate than I gave it credit for. And again while I think you made some excellent points I also think you’re fairly way off when you say how limited in scope his criticism is, and how narrow minded his taste in art and the world it lives in is. I think eventually you will find that he is way more open minded to that world than you speculate. There’s a YouTube video of him finger tapping out a beat on his kitchen table with his kid ( if I recall correctly). Just an example of how he’s not as boxed in as you might think.

    The other day I was in a doctor’s office getting a physical. This older, quite professional looking doctor walks by me in the hall, she’s giving staid to the point instructions to a nurse in the most serious manner until her cellphone rings as so: “Today’s Tom Sawyer he gets high on you. And the space he invades. He gets by on you….”

    You’d be surprised….

    1. Hi John,

      Reading your comments, I am struck with the impression that I do disagree fundamentally with Wood (although I suppose the jury will be out until I read his other books). Because if your representation of him is correct, then he and I are viewing art in fundamentally different ways,.

      This is to say that I don’t think Wood is a fuddy-duddy, or that he is incapable of liking oddball things. I don’t know the man, and I don’t know his tastes. Rather, what I object to in his writing is the valorization of realism above other styles of making art, and the valorization of particular means of making realism.

      I view art very broadly. It is the sum total of things humans do when making art. I am interested in all of those things, and don’t feel as though I have seen or experienced all of them. Over the years, across the many places, there have been lots of different ways of making art. All of them count as art.

      Some of those ways are no doubt better than other ways. Or, as I’d rather express it, those different ways count differently. But that’s reliant on particular contexts. Particular times and places.

      What I don’t believe is that there is some transcendent way of making art. I am not an idealist, and I don’t believe in transcendence. I believe in particular times and places.

      Thus, I object to Wood’s privileging of realism, and his privileging of the limited third person and free indirect discourse within the realist tradition. I object to his privileging those things a priori.

      Another way to put it. I am a formalist, and believe that to understand how an artwork works (how fiction works), one must look at it holistically. In some works of fiction, realism is going to work well. In some works of fiction, free indirect discourse is going to work well. In some works of fiction, beautiful language is going to work well.

      But those things only work well in particular artworks. And for every example that one can find of those things working well, one can find artworks in which those things, were they present, would not work well.

      Another way of putting it. Artworks are comprised of various elements. I don’t think that any of those elements are any more important or any better than any other of those elements. What’s important in an artwork is for the artwork / artist to decide.

      I don’t disagree that some works of art are better than other works of art. But quality is determined by tradition. Roger Ebert understood this well. Action films should be judged against other action films. Romantic comedies should be judged against other romantic comedies.

      Dan Brown’s airport novels should be judged against other airport novels. Works of Flaubertian realism should be judged against other works of Flaubertian realism.

      The world is a better place because there exist many different ways of making art.

      I will oppose anyone who argues that there is one correct way of making art.

      I think that’s the most clearly I can express my view at the moment. Although I have learned from experience that what I think is clear may not be clear. Or even correct. This is why I have committed to this blogging business; I find it productive and useful.

      I greatly appreciate your comments and it’s my pleasure to respond to them. I hope we keep talking! I don’t think it matters when people respond I am committed to the ongoing conversation.


      1. Adam,

        I pretty much agree with what you’re saying. Specifically the notion that literary works of art can give the reader pleasure in many different ways through a varied prism of technique. When it comes down to it artistic appreciation or the lack thereof is objective of course, but as you said there’s good and bad art. We’d do well however to make our comparisons accordingly, that is (also as you said), don’t compare “Sentimental Education” to “The Da Vinci Code”. That makes sense to me.

        I know James Wood as well as you do, which is to say not at all personally speaking. I suppose if you only look at “How Fiction Works” I can see why you say Wood is a critic who is committed to realism. But I think it may be a mistake to say he “privileges” realism. He definitely likes it a whole lot, and intertwines it with limited third person and free indirect discourse as a package best suited to writing great fiction. I just don’t think that’s all he’s about in regard to what he thinks works best in literature. Maybe that’s because I unconsciously think about his other criticism even when I read what’s in “How Fiction Works”. He has plenty of good to say about DH Lawrence for instance. And Lawrence, while he does utilize some of the technique within the realist tradition that Wood so dearly covets, is also quite lyrical and while his fiction feels “very real” to me that lyricism almost seems to border the supernatural at times. In “The Broken Estate” Wood titles his essay on Lawrence thus: “D .H. Lawrence’s Occultism”. Wood’s observation is that Lawrence writes at times like a poet. That he is a mystic. That his fiction has a religious fervor to it. That his descriptions are uncanny and otherworldly and beautiful. It kind of reminds me of Yeats mysticism. The one that in “Sailing to Byzantium” has him transformed into anything outside of nature.

        What this tells me about Wood is he is not restricted to a high appreciation of art that taps form only within the realist tradition. Of course this is just my interpretation. Maybe I’m off key here. It seems to me though that Wood could just as easily appreciate the mystic aura of let’s say Led Zeppelin, Zep those other artists who had a longing to express their mystic vision in their musical creativity.

        I definitely agree that art can be made in a zillion different ways and every one of them can work. Just so happens one of my favorite art forms is the movie review. I am an especial fan of Roger Ebert. “Especial” is that a word? I can easily kill an hour reading movie reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. And I think Ebert did have it right in regards to tradition. Maybe the point we are discussing only differs by small increments. I could be off about Wood. I just don’t think he’s as narrow viewed as he might seem in his views in literature as expressed in “How Fiction Works”. And I don’t think it’s even close to his best work. If you ever have the time and inclination check out “The Broken Estate”. Then you can tell me how you disagree even more with Wood. I jest. What I like most about Wood, really, is his writing, his turn of phrase, his wonderful use of metaphor, his acute observation.

        Wood aside I just like talking literature , writing fiction myself….and movies. Art as a whole. All approaches and aspects. It’s been a pleasure talking with you. Just got my copy of Malick’s “Badlands” from Amazon. Time to watch.

        Take care,


  17. One other thought. I’m with you that you can get into a book like “The Da Vinci Code”. My guess is however that when you read such a book you lower your expectations perhaps. And you can judge it against anything or nothing at all, but if I look at it and take it seriously it tends to lose me when it comes to holding me within the fictive dream. There’s too much wrong with it. In other words I might enjoy it for its neat little puzzles, but I ain’t buying a book written as such and that’s where my appreciation wanes. Usually those neat little puzzles aren’t enough to save me.

    I’m intrigued that you can like both Flaubert and still enjoy Dan Brown. It was probably over ten years ago that I read Patterson. I don’t think I could take it today. Not because I’m above it, because its preposterousnous would kill me. I wouldn’t be able to buy what he’s selling. And that comes from an inability to accept that what’s being depicted is, on some level, realistic. It can even be fantasy, but how a character behaves, thinks, speaks, and so on has to be believable and that comes from the writing. I will never get that tingle down my spine from James Patterson or Dan Brown that I will get from Nabokov or Ian McEwan or Philip Roth. It’s not a necessarily conscious reaction. It just happens. You’re reading and then in a moment you’re asking yourself, wait that doesn’t make sense, does it? You might be having some fun with it, but it’s not what you’d call a psychological thrill on a high level.

    Some of what Wood feels is most important in writing seems to me to be what works best in keeping the reader held captive within the fictive dream.

    And this is not to say that there are not other ways.

    Would you agree that if a piece of literature takes you outside the fictive dream that it is flawed as a work of art? I’m not just speaking of James Patterson and Marcel Proust, but any and all in between.

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