[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).
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).
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)
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.
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).
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.
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.
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, 8½, 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.
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.
As for myself, I would have fiction in all of its excellent and infinite variety, or not have it at all.
- 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.