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“[T]he pseudo-intellectuals at Big Other…”

Nigel Beale, a “writer, broadcaster, bibliophile,” and, it appears, fan of and apologist for James Wood, insults Big Other’s contributors and commenters in a post that can be found HERE. Without a semblance of critical thinking, he calls A D Jameson’s essay, “Tiny Shocks: Uncovering the Reductive Plot of James Wood’s How Fiction Works”,  a “lengthy eructation of ill conceived, frequently picayune argument contra James Wood’s How Fiction Works.” But he follows this with nothing that would back up his dismissal.

Since I’ve found him to be quite evasive, I’ve decided to post the conversation as it stands, thus far. First, here is his post in full:

If faux erudition and willful misreading set your pants on fire, go have a bonfire with this lengthy eructation of ill conceived, frequently picayune argument contra James Wood’s How Fiction Works.

The piece is far too cluttered with shoddy, farcical reasoning to warrant serious – make that any – response. The best I can suggest is to read through the smoke of it  – assuming you have the stomach for rich tripe – and then go back to Wood’s work. If nothing else the clean-aired contrast will be refreshing.

Far from all the claimed ‘instructing’, ‘dismissing’, ‘whittling’, ‘eliminating’ and ‘ignoring of lessons postmodern that the pseudo-intellectuals at Big Other accuse Wood of inflicting upon us, How Fiction Works argues, practically and cogently, that ‘fiction is both artifice and verisimilitude, and that there is nothing difficult in holding together these two possibilities’

And here are the responses, so far:

6 Responses to “Knocking Wood”

  1. John Madera Says:
    February 19th, 2010 at 10:12 PM Hi Nigel,
    If your post above weren’t so disingenuous, I might actually find it humorous. And it’s a shame that instead of participating in the dialogue at Big Other—where, regardless of your opinion, you would be taken seriously—you’ve stooped to insulting. You characterize everyone at Big Other as “pseudo-intellectuals,” and rather than engaging in A D Jameson’s (don’t you think you should name check the person you’re criticizing?) critique of Wood’s perspective, bias, his privileging of so-called free indirect style, his notions of character, his rather wooden rhetoric, and Wood’s misreading, deep misunderstanding of the works and theories of William Gass and Viktor Shklovsky, among others, you simply dismiss it as “ill conceived and picayune”. You also somehow missed Jameson’s own appreciation for Wood’s strengths, his recognition that “Wood (thankfully) is willing to acknowledge that all fiction, even realist fiction, is artifice.” But then this would weaken your final barb above.
    Lastly, when thinking of how insulting your post above is, I thought of retaliating by sharing how pathetic it is to post what looks like an email excerpt from James Wood praising your website (“I wanted to thank you for your many generous and intelligent words about my new book (and other stuff)…I get great pleasure from reading your blog.” Critic, James Wood, The New Yorker.) Whoops! It looks like I’ve done just that. Then again, you, too, contradict yourself by first writing: “The piece is far too cluttered with shoddy, farcical reasoning to warrant serious – make that any – response”, and then going on to offer your own rather tepid “response.”
    Instead of being James Wood’s cheerleader, why not seriously engage with Jameson’s critique of Wood’s How Fiction Works at Big Other?
  2. Nigel Beale Says:
    February 21st, 2010 at 2:19 AMHi John,

    I wouldn’t say my post is disingenuous, just a bit lazy. If nothing else, Jameson’s piece has prompted me to think about reading How Fiction Works again. When I get a bit more time I plan to do so, following which I’ll write something more substantive. You should, incidentally be aware that what you may consider offensive in my post is merely a response in kind to the insulting tone that runs throughout Jameson’s meanderings.

  3. Jack Tripp Says:
    February 21st, 2010 at 11:03 AM Nigel,
    Actually, your insults are of an entirely different order than the measured, though forceful critique, provided by Jameson.  The only smoke and ill-conceived argumentation is yours.  I think you really had better provide the more substantive response that you promise and you should really try to keep a more civil tongue than you do here.  It’s not a good advertisement for your skills as a reader and writer.
  4. A D Jameson Says:
    February 21st, 2010 at 2:42 PM Dear Nigel,

    I’m sorry you didn’t like my post, although I’m happy you’re directing people to it!

    I can’t really tell from the above what you object to in my writing—other than that it’s insulting? Note that none of it, unlike your post, is ad hominem; I my criticisms are, also unlike yours, fairly objective. If you make some specific criticisms of what I wrote, I’ll be very happy to respond to them!

    Woods does state in HOW FICTION WORKS that “fiction is both artifice and verisimilitude, and that there is nothing difficult in holding together these two possibilities.” But I wouldn’t agree that he *argues* that—he simply states it. And mostly he proceeds to write about the verisimilar power of fiction, which he ranks of supreme importance. Occasionally he draws attention to the formal properties underlying those verisimilar effects—and those sections are by far my favorite parts of his book. But I remain unconvinced that verisimilitude is of supreme importance in fiction, and that all form should bend toward it. (He takes this argument so far as to claim that all fiction should be written in the third person limited! Which I find rather peculiar, to say the least.) Wood’s overall project is the reiteration of a rather old pro-realist argument, with a few concessions made to formalism.

    Note that Wood’s claim (as expressed in that quote) is a rather uncontroversial one—like he says, there’s nothing difficult about holding together those thoughts! Indeed, I don’t know of anyone who claims otherwise! There might be some handful of radical formalists who argue that fiction contains no verisimilar power, and a few radical realists who claim that fiction is not artifice, but does anyone take such critics and views seriously? I surely don’t.

    Shklovsky and Gass and Barthes are not such formalists; I think I argue rather persuasively in my post that Wood has misread Shklovsly and Gass. I left out Barthes as the post got fairly wrong, but I could speak to that as well. But if you disagree with this part of my analysis, I’d especially love to hear from you, as I’m always very happy to discuss the work of those three gentlemen! (I wrote my Master’s thesis on Shklovsky and Gass, and on the works Wood misreads in particular. Strange coincidence!)

    Mind you, I have nothing whatsoever against verisimilitude, which I consider an important part of writing—simply not all-important. And I have no argument in general against realist writing, which I enjoy very much, and sometimes write myself. And there are parts of Wood’s book that I like; he’s a fairly talented writer, although I think he’s also overpraised—his prose isn’t *that* good, and he employs it toward dubious, somewhat close-minded ends. And, again, as I think I’ve demonstrated, his scholarship is shoddy. His reading of Shklovsky is demonstrably wrong, and I think obvious to anyone who’s read THEORY OF PROSE. His readings of Gass are superficial and shallow, which might have been more forgiveable in the 1970s—but Gass’s work is pretty well-understood these days. I find these intellectual errors somewhat curious given Wood’s pedigree and the book’s prominence; it makes me wonder if it was fact-checked. (There are also numerous errors in the book’s index, further causing me to wonder.)

    But that’s getting pedantic, to be sure!

    I like writing of all kinds, and I most strongly object when critics like Wood trivialize their considerable powers by ranking literature, from most realist to least, and therefore “best” to “worst.” I think that’s a waste of time, honestly, that fails to adequately respond to the varied richness that is fiction.

    Thanks again for the link, and I’ll look forward to your response! Until then,

    Best regards,

  5. A D Jameson Says:
    February 21st, 2010 at 2:46 PM Oops! “I left out Barthes as the post got fairly wrong”—that should be “long”!
    (But you can consider it also a Seussian flip.)
    So much for fact-checking! I cede a point to Wood.
    Cheers, Adam
  6. Nigel Beale Says:
    February 21st, 2010 at 4:43 PMDear Adam,

    You criticize Wood for being a ‘dilettante,’ for being ‘smug and small,’ ‘dull’ and imprecise, for passing judgments which  are ‘inane,’ or ‘vague to the point of saying very little.’

    This in my opinion is insulting, and, more importantly, inaccurate.

    Wood gives us what the best critics give us: bias, delivered in sentences full of, as Carmine Starnino puts it in the introduction to his excellent book of criticism A Lover’s Quarrel (Porcupine’s Quill, 2004) “gusto, authority, mischief and melody.”

    Does Wood ‘misunderstand’ Gass? Is his reading of Shklovsky ‘demonstrably wrong’? Are these ‘intellectual errors’ or are they mischievous ploys to argue (successfully I’d say) points which you just don’t agree with? Who’s being Ad hominem here?

    In any event, I’ll get working on a biased response (which given my schedule wont arrive in fewer than 2-3 weeks) and leave off by saying that it was my pleasure to link to your post, however misguided its content.

And, lastly, here’s a comment from me that has yet to make it through Beale’s filter:

Yes, I’d say your post was lazy, too. And worse, rather than Jameson’s post challenging your thoughts about Wood you are opting to reread How Fiction Works. With what intention is still unclear. You still haven’t explained why you think you’re justified in calling everyone at Big Other a “pseudo-intellectual.” I’m inclined to think that this is a projection on your part.

Please demonstrate how Wood’s reading of Shklovsky, Gass, and Barthes is accurate. Please show how Jameson is wrong. If you’re not willing to do that, what exactly are you doing? Why should anyone care about what you think about the whole issue?

Taken out of context, Jameson’s descriptions used of Wood’s prose and arguments, may appear to be insulting. However, embedded as they are in a total argument they must be evaluated one by one. This is something you’ve yet to do here.

Your only defense, so far, is weak:

“Wood gives us what the best critics give us: bias, delivered in sentences full of, as Carmine Starnino puts it in the introduction to his excellent  A Lover’s Quarrel (Procupine’s Quill, 2004) ‘gusto, authority, mischief and melody.'”

That’s it? This is your rebuttal? You are being continually evasive. To what end? How about taking one thing that you think Jameson was wrong about and criticize it with some kind of depth.

9 thoughts on ““[T]he pseudo-intellectuals at Big Other…”

  1. You know, it’s rather nice to be called a ‘pseudo-intellectual’. It’s probably the nearest I’ll ever come to being called an intellectual.

    Of course, the sort of name-calling Mr Beale engages in is something normally resorted to only when you don’t have an actual argument.

  2. Wow. First of all, I think Adam’s criticism on Big Other is erudite, devouring, and idiosyncratic, as all good criticism should be. Second of all, I think it’s important to remember that James Wood was one of the main critics behind Heidi Julavits’ inaugural essay on snark in The Believer, for his absolutely withering take-down of Zadie Smith and other types of writing he coined “hysterical realism.” Now, I don’t necessarily disagree with some of what Woods has to say about contemporary writing and its pitfalls. But Woods has always been a very snarky critic. As this Mr. Beale obviously is a disciple of this sort of dispiriting invalidation. I just went back and reread Adam’s essay on the Woods, and it is forceful, as someone writes, and I think does the job of pointing out the holes in Woods’ arguments as well as championing literature that Woods is dismissing, or omitting. But nowhere is the tone of his essay snarky.

  3. Am I the only one who finds it hilarious when someone uses “pseudo-intellectual” as an insult and then goes on to call something “picayune?”

    1. i thought picayune was a type of charcoal briquette used to smoke-flavor ribs and other species of bbq regalia.

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