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Tiny Shocks Revisited (A Continuing Criticism of James Wood’s How Fiction Works)

Earlier today John pointed toward Nigel Beale’s cleverly-titled criticism of my post “Tiny Shocks: Uncovering the Reductive Plot of James Wood’s How Fiction Works.” I’m looking forward to Nigel’s longer criticism; in the meantime I thought I’d reply regarding the mistakes Wood makes in his readings of Viktor Shklovsky and William H. Gass, since Nigel asked specifically about them:

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?

(Nigel, I hope you don’t mind my calling you by your first name; since we’re Facebook friends now, and I hope you’ll call me Adam. It keeps things friendlier!)

And let me say that it’s certainly fair for Nigel to take issue with my calling Wood’s account “smug and small” etc. Those are critical words, granted. I stand by them, however, as fitting descriptions of Wood’s argument and the manner in which he makes it: Wood’s reading of fiction in How Fiction Works is reductive, and I believe that a critic of his stature is capable of far better. (He studied with Frank Kermode!)

OK, on to the formalists.

So, Wood’s reading of Shklovsky. I called it demonstrably incorrect. I think my post clearly demonstrated why, but I’ll reiterate, and try to say something new about this in the process. The relevant section in Wood is here:

[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)

I’ll define some of these terms briefly, for clarity’s sake (although interested parties should refer to Shklovsky’s Theory of Prose, as it’s fascinating reading).

A consummated or open closed ending is one where the plot experiences denouement. (Again, denouement means an untying, and the implication behind that word is that, following it, there is nothing left to do.) Most stories end this way: e.g., a comedy ends with a marriage, a tragedy ends with a death, or deaths. The audience is aware that “more could be said” (more can always be said), but the main questions raised by the narrative have been answered, and there is a sense of catharsis, or at least completeness. Hamlet is a classic example of a narrative with a closed ending. Shakespeare could have written more—we don’t stick around to see whether Fortinbras becomes the next king—but we have a pretty strong sense that the story is finished. We leave the theater satisfied.

An unconsummated or open ending is one where the narrative ends before denouement. In my original post, I cite François Truffaut’s well-known film The 400 Blows (1959). I apologize for not having cited a literary example, but I thought the film one easier to see: I can embed the actual ending of the film in the post:

Here’s another example: the ending of the great 1971 film Two-Lane Blacktop (spoiler alert!):

Literary examples are, in any case, abundant. For instance, see the ending of the novel Nog (1968) by Rudolph Wurlitzer (which is on my mind as I just read it—an amazing book). (Wurlitzer also wrote the screenplay for Two-Lane Blacktop.)

A false ending is something else entirely: when a story ends not with plot consummation but a bit of writing that gives the impression of a closed ending. For example, the author might append a recognizably clichéd bit of ending to the narrative, creating the impression of closure but without really resolving the narrative. (Imagine an open-ended film that then features a camera craning skyward toward the sunset, and you’ll get the idea.) Shklovsky actually discusses this type of ending before he discusses unconsummated endings (which he calls negative endings).

Here are the corresponding pages in Theory of Prose, for anyone who wants to read more about all of this. I encourage you to do so because it’s just such great stuff!

OK. As I wrote at the time:

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!

This has nothing to do with opinion; it’s pure reading comprehension; Shklovsky doesn’t begin his discussion of Chekhov until after he’s finished defining these different types of endings; see the second half of page 57. (But before we move on, note that Shklovsky is not writing about “‘unconsummated’ stories with ‘false endings’”—those are two different types of endings. Indeed, Wood’s use of “respectively” doesn’t even make sense unless those are two different types of endings. This is an example of the kind of vague and lazily-written sentence one finds throughout How Fiction Works.) (There are, admittedly, many very good sentences, but they don’t excuse the blunders. To paraphrase Howard Hawks on what makes a good film: three great scenes—but no bad ones.)

I think this is a pretty straightforward matter, and it’s a mistake that Wood should account for. It’s also something that shouldn’t have gone to print; an editor or fact-checker should have caught it. (This flub and the fact that the index is often incorrect makes me doubt that the book was very carefully fact-checked or edited.)

(Adding to all of this that Chekhov is, in fact, a master of closed-plot narratives, as Shklovsky’s reading demonstrates—Shklovsky attributes Chekhov’s success as a storyteller to “distinct plotlines with unexpected resolutions” (58, my emphasis).

Chekhov routinely wrote plots that developed and closed off—remember his oft-repeated bit of advice that the gun from Act I should go off in Act IV? Firs dies as the cherry orchard is chopped down at the end of The Cherry Orchard. Konstantin shoots himself at the end of The Seagull. Serebryakov and Vanya make up at the end of Uncle Vanya, and then Serebryakov and Yelena take their leave, and Sonya delivers her heart-breaking closing monologue:

Now that is a closed ending! I cry every time I see it, due to its astonishing finality.

This is what Wood calls “the essential juvenility of plot.” This is what he would prefer that artists “surrender” in favor of unconsummated endings. (“[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.'”)

I myself am happy that both open and closed endings (as well as other types of endings) exist as options available to fiction writers. If you’ll permit me a personal example: In my most recently completed story collection, “Distress” (as yet unpublished), some of the stories feature open endings, and some feature closed endings. But I don’t think one type of ending is inherently superior to the other; they’re different options that writers have. (François Truffaut gave The 400 Blows an open ending, then the very next year gave Breathless (1960)—he wrote the screenplay—a closed one.)

When writing one of the stories in “Distress,” “5000 Units of Product,” I had a great deal of trouble figuring out how to end it. I tried for many years to give it an open ending. But last year I realized that it would work better with a closed ending; within a week, I had finished the piece. [Update: it’s since been published, in case you’re curious.]

Wood doesn’t explain why open-ended plots are superior to closed plots, or why plot is “essentially juvenile”; as is typical in How Fiction Works, he simply proclaims this to be the case. (It’s not unlike earlier in the book, where he decrees third person limited superior to all other points of view. That claim he at least provides more reasoning for, although I find that reasoning specious.)

Wood is certainly free to have his preferences, but to argue that any perspective or type of ending is objectively superior to another is a silly business. It’s not unlike arguing that stories with dogs in them are better than the canine-free variety. This is precisely the kind of nonsense argument that I consider beneath a critic of Wood’s stature—”smug and small.”

Furthermore, it’s particularly egregious to campaign for one particular point of view or type of ending in a book that purports—at least initially—to be a primer on how to write fiction. What good does it do to tell younger writers to not use a particular perspective? Or that their stories should end only in certain ways?

The novel is not evolving toward a higher state of being, some ideal future where every writer worth his salt produces only third-person limited narratives with open endings! And the novels of today are not necessarily better than the novels of yesteryear. However, this is the cartoonish history of the novel that Wood paints in How Fiction Works.

Attributing such telos to the novel compounds Wood’s misunderstanding of the Russian Formalist concept of ostranenie (enstrangement or estrangement or defamiliarization). Again, see my original post for more on this; see also here, here, and here. Wood reduces this very powerful concept to personification, which I find extremely wrong-headed. It is also, once again, demonstrably wrong—ostranenie is not, as Wood claims, a kind of metaphor. As I noted, for Shklovsky ostranenie was a vastly larger concept, and the very thing that makes art art. Shklovsky notes repeatedly throughout Theory of Prose that exposure to art desensitizes us to it (just as exposure to life inures us to life).

And so it is valuable for artists have a wide range of devices and techniques to choose from, because that allows them to continuously refresh art, and therefore life. Shklovsky’s oft-cited words are well worth repeating:

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)

If everyone around you is writing stories with closed endings, and you write a story with an open ending, that helps make your story feel fresh, and reminds everyone of a possibility in writing (and maybe also in life). But the converse is also true: the closed plot will feel revolutionary when perceived against a field stuffed with more existential, open-ended works. This is the basis by which old ideas can be brought back and made new again.

Here’s an example of an unconsummated ending that surprised a lot of people—because in this type of movie, we expect the good guy to win:

By way of comparison, the ending of Last Tango in Paris (1972) owes at least some of its power to the fact that we don’t expect European art films to end so definitively. Roger Ebert is so fond of that scene’s definitive power that he ends both his 1995 and 2004 essays on the film by mentioning it. (Spoiler warnings for all of these films, by the way! But they’re all great films that you should check out if you haven’t seen… Last Tango in Paris is especially brilliant.)

And some authors, perversely, like to have it both ways. Here’s the famous definitive and yet ambiguous ending of Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970)—one of my favorite endings in any film ever:

I stand by my claim that Wood deeply misunderstands Shklovsky’s point, due both to his trivialization of ostranenie, and due to his view of some literary devices as inherently superior to others (which he is compelled to hold because he considers some genres of fiction inherently superior to others; I disagree here as well). The result is that Wood’s view of fiction is weaker than Shklovsky’s, and less useful to anyone who wants to understand how fiction actually works.

As for Gass, and Wood’s misreading of him, that is less straightforward. The relevant section from Wood is this:

“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)

To understand what Wood finds so “deeply, incorrigibly” wrong in Gass, please see my original post; see also Gass’s original essay, “The Concept of Character in Fiction.” I won’t reiterate my full criticism here; suffice it to say:

1. Gass’s formalist analysis of character is in fact extremely useful, and tells us many useful things. I’ve used it myself on many occasions. For instance, I just completed an interview where I explain in more detail how Gass’s analysis helped me overcome some technical and conceptual problems when writing my first story collection. When the interview goes up, I’ll add a link.) Of course some people don’t find formalist criticism useful—some people don’t find mathematics useful—but to claim that it therefore isn’t useful is ignorance plain and simple.

2. Wood’s summary of Gass is misleadingly reductive. Gass does define characters in terms of the words that comprise them (and in truth it’s more complicated and subtle than that; characters are recurring nouns that mnemonically gather other words under them), but Gass doesn’t then proceed to say something tautological, like, “And that’s all they are! And that’s the end of it! Huff!”

3. Gass never, ever, anywhere (and I have read a lot by William H. Gass) denies that the words that comprise characters (and stories) can’t be illusionistic, or can’t be applied toward mimetic ends (“cannot really create an imagined world,” as Wood puts it). Wood is wrong to imply that Gass believes and argues this.

On that last point, Wood has fallen victim to a trap realists often fall into when debating formaliststs: he has repeated a straw-man argument of formalism. But just because you define the devices of fiction in terms of language doesn’t mean you are denying the communicative power of that language. How anyone can read Gass and come away with the conclusion that he doesn’t think characters can be illusionistic, or words communicative—well, it baffles me. As I worded it in my original post:

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.

Wood’s argument against Gass is, in my view, discredited a priori; see the debates between Gass and John Gardner for an extensive—and I do mean extensive!—argument on this very subject, where Gass responds to this very criticism many times. (I linked to some information about these debates in my original post; a full transcript of one debate is transcribed in the wonderful interview collection Anything Can Happen.)

Indeed, Wood’s repetition of this hackneyed criticism calls to mind John Barth’s complaint about his contemporaries who wrote as if “the last sixty years or so hadn’t existed”; Wood is making an argument that ignores more than thirty years of substantial debate. As James Tadd Adcox wrote in my original post’s comments section:

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…

Wood’s mischaracterization of Gass’s argument is an embarrassing moment in his book, and another example of the whole project’s small-mindedness.

…Well, I fear that I’ve mostly repeated myself here, but I’ll hope that I’ve done so with additional clarity (and at least we got in some movie clips). Again, I look forward to Nigel’s longer and more substantive complaint with my post, as well as to the ensuing discussion.

Until then, best regards to all, Adam

P.S. Dear James Wood! Please drop me a line! I want to hear what it was like to study with Frank Kermode!

  • 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.

33 thoughts on “Tiny Shocks Revisited (A Continuing Criticism of James Wood’s How Fiction Works)

  1. Another excellent post; you are quickly becoming the Justin Taylor of Big Other. One thing:

    A consummated or open ending is one where the plot experiences denouement

    Should be closed ending, no?

  2. Good job Adam. A few things.

    I don’t know about Planet of the Apes being an unconsummated ending. Seeing the Statue of Liberty seems like a denouement to me. What else can happen, realistically? Yes, we could see him struggling to accept his situation and having sex with his woman and then getting mad at his woman because he doesn’t like apes and then maybe he has an affair with Kim Hunter and they start reciting Streetcar Named Desire to each other, but that’s not interesting and it’s not going to happen.

    Zabriskie Point’s ending is sure memorable. I need to re – view, but aside from that ending and the desert scenes, I think something crippled Antonioni on this one. And I love his work, but the beginning, which might have been verbatim, is too verbatim, too much OF the time. Now how did he pull off London in Blow Up? I think he came into it with less biases, so his vision, what is unconscious delivered consciously, was clear and lean. I remember interviews with him talking about America…

    Blow-Up seemed to come from his belly, whereas Zab. is kind of fussy and almost too scripted. Sam Shepard was one writer. The actors didn’t help. The main actor (and I think he wanted unexperienced ones) just flounders. The woman is a little better, but a little wooden. I’ll leave it to you to upload the Dick Cavett interview with them, which is much more interesting than their performances. He returned to form in The Passenger though.

    On the Barth quote. I’ve heard other people calling for this (John M!), this wanting writers go beyond what is there, to strive, to deal with the recent examples of breaking down the form. I agree, I think we have try to be as good as Shakespeare, we have to aim for that. But let the writer decide what form that is going to take. We can’t tell each other how to write or what to write about, that’s ludicrous-the well is deep inside us-it would be tantamount to water torture. Here folks, deal with Beckett, deal with Gass, deal with Wallace, deal, deal.

    Each writer follows their own muse and if they want to write a story about an affair and a break up, describing the man as having ‘a high forehead’ let us let them.



    1. re: PLANET OF THE APES, that’s fair. In some ways that ending seems very final, but in other ways I might argue that it’s a question mark: “What the hell will happen now?” (The movie series did try to answer that question—a lot was going on beneath the planet, and elsewhere!)


      But twist or shock endings often do have an air of finality to them—the air of DOOM. I’ll try to think of a better example of a more mainstream film or book that distinguishes itself against the field by ending openly, sans denouement.

      (Shklovsky’s actual term is “negative ending,” where the denouement is removed from the text. THE 400 BLOWS remains the classic film example: that ending is/was really shocking, especially at the time.)

      As for ZABRISKIE POINT, I’ve recently been watching a lot of late 60s/early 70s “free-form” hippie/Happning-inspired works of cinema; it’s something of a (sub-)genre. ZABRISKIE POINT fits in there. As does ZARDOZ. (Only Z movies, then?) BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS. The original CASINO ROYALE. They’re all very Dionysian. I think they look particularly odd to us now because the dominant mode at the moment (I’d argue) is Apollonian (inasmuch as one subscribes to such a distinction). A lot of the dominant postmodern art, and dominant popular art, is very restrained, intellectual, clever, winking, ironic—not bodily and celebratory and expulsively passionate like those movies are.

      As for Barth’s “Literature of Exhaustion” and “Literature of Replenishment,” and questions of post-postmodernism in general, I have a lot to say on that subject… A bunch of the things that I’ve been writing have all been build-up toward addressing that very topic…

      (It will all end in DOOM!)

  3. Barton Fink maybe. Or how about Grand Canyon!

    Blow Up could fit into your category up there. It (like most of Kubrick) does two things at once – it appeals to pop culture, yet can be read as a very complex exercise in symbology and expressionism.

    Here’s that youtube


    1. And surely Adam, it was a different time. I wish we could have someone weigh in on this who was at least 17 or so in 1969. Maybe my Uncle Tom? Are you there?

      We can only speak to it as an artifact or art, by context is everything. We don’t know the context, I mean we really don’t and watch some Peter Jennings newspecial on the 1960’s or watching Woodstock isn’t going to do it. Teh 60’s from people who were there.


      1. It was certainly a different time!

        Do you know Roman Jakobson’s concept of the dominant? (He borrowed it from Yury Tyranov.) It’s similar in some ways to the Romantic notion of the Zeitgeist, but more useful, I think.

        Jakobson described in “Language in Literature” how poetry evolves by shifting dominants. The dominant is what a thing needs to be a good example of that thing: the element that a poem needs, for example, to be considered a proper poem. So, continuing that example, poetry of a certain period might be characterized by rhyme, and most of the poems rhymed, and other elements of prosody got subordinated under that. But then, after some time, rhyme became less important, and something else became dominant—maybe meter. (I’m not describing here a particular time or place; this is a hypothetical example.) But then that dominant went away, and something else became dominant…

        You can see a pretty clear example of this phenomenon in Language and post-Language poetries, I think: anti-syllogistic elements (the New Sentence, parataxis) became dominant, subordinating other prosodic elements. The poet was/is free to do whatever she or he wishes, so long as the poem resists syllogistic pressures. (I’m over-simplifying but I think this is does describe a common element in Langpo and the po-Langpos.)


        Jakobson went on to claim that the dominant could be expressed not only at the level of the poem, but also at the level of the overall culture, where it functions more like a Zeitgeist—the common elements that you find in almost everything people are doing, without which the work is considered incomplete or naive.

        Now no doubt Jakobson’s describing many different things here—poems and cultures are different things—but I find it to be a pretty useful concept.

        Anyway, I think it’s clear now that different things were dominant in the late 60s/early 70s than they are now. I just watched ZARDOZ, and that film assumes a very different viewer than the viewer of today (who can appreciate the film perhaps only ironically). It’s interesting to ask what critics today would make of it. Back then, the critics mostly liked it. I think they’d ridicule a film like ZARDOZ now.

        (And they did. It was called SOUTHLAND TALES. And THE FOUNTAIN.)

        If I recall, the problem that a lot of folks had with ZABRISKIE POINT was that they felt Antonioni didn’t really get the culture he was trying to talk about. For instance, Godard thought Antonioni was only playing, and in a very shallow way, with genuinely revolutionary ideas. But of course I wasn’t there…

    2. GRAND CANYON ends somewhat unusually, in terms of its fairly poetic coda (which I really loved when I was younger), but I wouldn’t call that film’s ending an example of open ending (or negative ending, as Shklovsky puts it). The plot wraps up pretty tidily, I recall, with events proceeding from “false recognition” (Steve Martin’s character is a jerk movie producer) to “the true state of affairs” (Steve Martin reforms, and becomes nice, and vows to quit making violent films).

      Shklovsky: “The state 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)

      In an open or negative ending, we never realized the true state of affairs. There is no true sense of completeness because the narrative ends before the plot does (or right at the moment when the true state of affairs is being revealed, or stands about to be revealed). Shklovsky stresses that we experience this as a negative ending because we know from other works that there is usually more than this, but in this case the narrative has been abridged: “This story is perceived against the background of traditional stories with an ‘ending.'” (57)

      BARTON FINK might be a better example of what Shklovsky calls a false ending, since it’s difficult to say what that film’s “true state of affairs” would be. Do we expect, while watching that film, that the plot will really wrap up, and that the mystery will end? It’s been a while since I saw it, but I remember thinking that the whole thing was more like a nightmare, like in Lynch, and not meant to be taken literally. I wasn’t surprised when the whole thing ended so mysteriously. In other words, it’s more anti-narrative than narrative.

      These types of endings apply mostly to more traditionally plotted narratives, really, which brings up another thing that I suspect Wood has misunderstood. If you don’t have plot as an organizing force in the narrative—if you’ve “surrendered” it, or made something else more dominant (like language play or character psychology or anti-narrative elements), then it’s difficult to have an unconsummated ending. (Shklovsky is describing only ways in which plots are perceived as complete, or almost complete.) In order for the ending to feel unconsummated, then the narrative *needs* plot in order to lead the audience to expect that there will be a consummation–and then be surprised/disappointed/etc. (I’m sure we’ve all had dates like this, where we expected a certain ending, but then things resolved…more openly.)

      Switching gears, and regarding Brooks and Cavett et al., those two are /epitomes/ of the Apollonian. Frechette and Halprin are more Dionysian. (Again, a quick and ultimately limited distinction, but.) Those two sides look very strange to one another.

      Something similar happened here:


      And here:


      Bob Dylan tried to turn his Dionysian tendencies against themselves—to be cleverer than cleverness itself, to point where it becomes nonsense—and therefore Apollonian.

      He’s still trying to be the Joker:


      I find that our society today has little patience—too little patience—for anything that isn’t clever. Writers in particular are very invested in being clever.

      A particular kind of clever. But there are many different types of cleverness.

      1. Egad, Adam! Regarding Dylan above, surely you meant:

        Bob Dylan tried to turn his APOLLONIAN tendencies against themselves—to be cleverer than cleverness itself, to point where it becomes nonsense—and therefore DIONYSIAN.

        This is what happens, man, when you invoke Nietzsche before you’ve had your eight shots of espresso!

        1. Cleverness and the camp of today. The same? Maybe not, but I think because we are dealing mostly with movies and the millions of dollars it takes to make many of them, cleverness is a design of the profit-motivated mind. The beginning of The Player, is a perfect example – here are these stars, here is the package, this is what happens, give me the money – Out of Africa meets Pretty Woman – blah blah blah. Marely and Me and that Roberts/Owen spy movie seem like good examples to me.

          It’s harder to call out cleverness in fiction, for me at least.

          1. “It’s harder to call out cleverness in fiction, for me at least.”

            Cleverness isn’t a good word for it, sorry. There are many kinds of cleverness; it can be many things: mentally adroit, but also physically nimble. It comes from the word “to cleave,” in its clinging meaning, aka sticky—like a burdock (clive).

            Dancing can be very clever. So can knots.

            I find Nietzche’s Apollonian/Dionysian distinction a better one, although even that has limits. And it seems to me that, right now, Apollonian ideals are more dominant over Dionysian ideals—especially in small press publishing. This isn’t necessarily a good thing or a bad thing—it’s just a thing. Someday it will be different, because as David Mament and Shel Silverstein said, “Things change.” The dominant shifts. The old becomes new again, and vice versa.

            Look at NOG by Rudolph Wurlitzer (1968). Definitely a book of its time. Hard to imagine that being written now, and people going for it. Thomas Pynchon said after he read it:

            “Wow, this is some book, I mean it’s more than a beautiful and heavy trip, it’s also very important in an evolutionary way, showing us directions we could be moving in — hopefully another sign that the Novel of Bullshit is dead and some kind of re-enlightenment is beginning to arrive, to take hold. Rudolph Wurlitzer is really, really good, and I hope he manages to come down again soon, long enough anyhow to guide us on another one like Nog.”

            (Jeremy M. Davies told me the other day that Wurlitzer did deliver another on: QUAKE. Which he said could have been called “NOG 2: EVEN NOGGIER.) (Jeremy and I have been on something of a Wurlitzer kick since we watched TWO-LANE BLACKTOP and it BLEW OUR MINDS.)

            You can read chapter 1 of NOG here:

            Anyway, today things are more Apollonian, I think. Everything’s so precious and clean and neat and super-rational and non-physical and hyper-referential and brief and tight and constrained and emotionally restrained. It’s not sprawling and intoxicated and exuberant and bellicose and physical and messy.

            Walk into Quimby’s here in Chicago and you’ll see what I mean. Walk just about anywhere and you’ll see what I mean! it’s hard not to see it!

            This isn’t a judgment; it’s an observation.

            SWEET MOVIE (1974):



            THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH (1976):


            ZARDOZ (1974):


            By way of contrast:

            GARDEN STATE (2004):


            LOST IN TRANSLATION (2003):


            THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS (2001):


            …Wes Anderson can use all the late-60s/early 70s music he wants, but he’ll never make anything like this:

            PERFORMANCE (1970):



            1. Actually, FLATS is “NOG 2.” QUAKE is more (superficially) realism. QUAKE reminds one of the screenplay-writing Wurlitzer (“Make it three yards, motherfucker, and we’ll have us an automobile race.”) FLATS reminds one of … what an amazing world it must have been, in some senses, during the fifteen minutes commercial presses took chances on this sort of thing. Perhaps hoping for another Beat cash-in, as TWO-LANE was an attempted EASY RIDER cash-in? Goodness knows.

            2. Clever used perjoratively Adam, you know that.

              I think the terms might begin to fail us. We don’t live in 1969. The examples above are hip. Maybe that is the operative word. Hip has replaced camp, and it has subsumed cute. It’s a product, as in many TV shows. The arcs are the same. Characters aren’t really in trouble, but faux trouble. Bill Murray is having trouble at home, ok. But just look at something like Nashville. Old man with dying wife and tripped out niece, couple with deaf children, trio with two lovers but one is also involved with the third and the third is Lothario that sleeps with everyone and wants to sleep with the wholesome mother of the deaf children. That’s only seven, there’s nineteen more characters. There is a lot going on there. Hip doesn’t enter the equation.

              I’ve been trying to think of open-ended films. Nashville and Short Cuts come to mind. One might say they are false but I disagree. Nothing is really resolved, and in the case of multiple characters, not just one Msr. Truffant.

              Also Cassavetes films, which have few referents in US film culture. There’s nothing false or winking about the end of Faces, Husbands or A Woman Under the Influence.

              Many of these examples are from the 70’s, I know.

              It seems though that many of the Big Other posts lately have been grappling with these questions: what is cute, what is avant-garde. We want to make our art better, yes?

              1. Hi Greg,

                “Clever used perjoratively Adam, you know that.”

                I suppose that’s often the case… And often should be the case… But cleverness seems to me a highly prized value these days. Returning to Jakobson’s dominant: it’s expected of artworks. Otherwise they’re not well-made.

                Quick quiz: Who’s written the “better” story? The workshop participant who writes a bad imitation of Franzen or Dave Eggers? Or the stoner student who writes a bad imitation of Hesse? I think there’s a lot less tolerance for the latter in the here and now. People would tell the first student: You should be writing *better* imitations of Franzen and Eggers. But they’d tell the second student: You shouldn’t be writing that kind of writing *at all*. Put that Hesse down! That’s embarrassing! Why don’t you read some Franzen and Eggers instead?

                I’m not trying to be evaluative here at all; I’m not trying to say anything about Franzen or Eggers or Hesse. I’m just trying to point out that what we consider acceptable has shifted in this culture (as we’d expect it to have; now is different than then). We are swayed by different dominants.


                “Hip has replaced camp, and it has subsumed cute.”

                That might be one way of looking at it—and lord knows I tend to rail against hipness. (I’m trying to be nicer these days.)

                As Sontag speculated, Camp requires belief in what you’re making—a kind of innocence (or total consciousness, the kind Wilde had). I see little innocence these days. (Well, I see naiveté…)

                “Characters aren’t really in trouble, but faux trouble.”

                I think this is a good point. 1970s films are much more dangerous than the movies being made today. (This is part of that naiveté I sense.) There’s much more at risk, I think—even when they’re fantastical, like ZARDOZ. In some ways ZARDOZ is inane—it takes itself way too seriously in some ways. It’s somewhat embarrassing. But I also admire its sincerity, its commitment. And it’s about Nietzsche. Nietzsche! What contemporary US film is about Nietzsche? What contemporary US film dares quote Nietzsche, assumes the audience will know who Nietzsche is? ZARDOZ does precisely that.

                I often think, when watching 1970s films, that they’re about a much bigger kind of life than most movies today are. There’s more to life in those films. …For instance, there’s sex. Sex doesn’t seem to exist any more, from the art I see… Just flirting, dating…

                “Cassavetes films…There’s nothing false or winking about the end of Faces, Husbands or A Woman Under the Influence.”

                False doesn’t have to be winking. I think the issue here is that Cassavetes and Altman tend to be less plotted than other directors—more meandering. I mean, there’s a plot in MCCABE & MRS. MILLER, a very simple and plot, but you miss it in all the coming and going. When the end of that film comes for Warren Beatty, you almost miss it, alone out there in the snow… Everyone’s looking elsewhere… So there’s a resolution, but plot feels rather de-emphasized. I imagine this is precisely the kind of thing that Wood is trying to describe, and to valorize: the de-emphasis of plot in favor of character. I wonder what he thinks of MCCABE & MRS. MILLER? And yet that film, for all of its realist elements and impulses, isn’t entirely a realist film… It’s an homage to SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER, for one thing, and Leonard Cohen keeps singing over everything…such a strange and distancing effect…

                (I should note that I simply adore MCCABE & MRS. MILLER. I love plenty of works where plot takes a backseat to character! But I also love movies and narratives where characters take a backseat to plot. MCCABE & MRS. MILLER is a terrific film; KISS ME DEADLY is also a terrific film. I don’t ever want to have to choose between them…)

                (KISS ME DEADLY: Now there’s a film with a plot that *thinks* it resolves—but it does not resolve! That’s a movie with a false ending, because it tries to end, but all that ending does is make the viewer bolt upright and scream: What the hell?!?!?! People have been screaming what the hell for 50 years, stealing that ending, reworking it, trying to make sense of it. You know you’ve touched a nerve when both Steven Spielberg AND David Lynch rip you off… And the respective works are RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and MULHOLLAND DRIVE…)

                To return to the question of endings, though—WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE is pretty closed, I think. Falk’s striking Rowlands at the end is pretty final. The true state of their relationship stands revealed for everyone to see; their playing at normality (the false state of affairs)—is revealed as their having been playing.

                A lot is left unsaid at the end—the audience sense that Falk’s character is as unhinged as Rowland’s, but society will tolerate his weaknesses, because he’s a man, and men are excused. And so it’s unfair that Rowlands is punished. But that doesn’t mean the plot is open.

                A work with a closed plot can be just as subtle and ambiguous as a work with an open plot. Again, “closed” or “open” or “false”—these are descriptive terms only. (A false ending is in no way a bad ending. False doesn’t mean bad here.) They’re not evaluative terms.

                “what is cute, what is avant-garde. We want to make our art better, yes?”

                I know I do. But I also want to understand what’s around me, whether I like it or not, whether I think it’s good or not.

                Cuteness can be experimental. Anything can be experimental, and innovative. I think that a lot of 1980s twee pop was innovative, and challenging. But I also think that, starting in the 1980s, cuteness became increasingly dominant in the US, and now when someone is cute, or overly precious, they’re not kicking against any pricks.

                Which might be fine. Do the pricks need kicking all the time? Well, maybe they do…

                Still, I can appreciate cute, hip things.


                Every other Tuesday.

                Cheerio, Adam

                1. Wonderful stuff Adam ‘the machine’ Levine (some Chicago references for you).

                  I think when we talk about endings, you know, we talk about life itself, what we want, how we should live, what we can do.

                  A Cassavetes ending and some Altman endings throw the ball in our court. Plot goes out the window. When Rilke ends his Archaic Torso of Apollo poem with “You must change your life” after spending the whole poem talking about a statue, we are directed to be accountable. And we always are, right? I guess I want my art to hold me accountable, like a good friend would – they wouldn’t sugar-coat something but tell me how it is. (See endings of Paula Fox novels and short stories)

                  With ‘Woman’ I would say the state of their relationship at that moment is apparent. But these are people that are so changeable, living and learning, it’s probably going to lurch in some other direction soon enough, maybe he will beat her so bad he goes to jail, maybe something else – I think because of everything that comes before, the story, the acting, the mise en scene, I am so invested in these characters that I am there for them and they are there for me – timeless.

                  For sex in recent films, luckily we had A History of Violence. Mullholland Drive has a pretty erotic scene as well (plus it’s just about the only time in film where someone says I love you and I really believe them)

                  1. “‘the machine’ Levine”

                    Well, we all know what happened to him, in the end.

                    [John, lock up the (publishing) leads!]

                    Jeremy reminded me that A WOMAN UNDER ends rather falsely (in the Shklovskian sense): despite all that’s happened, despite that punch, “they tidy up the house, the music comes on and they unfold the bed and draw the curtains! it’s so theatrical; an accident?”

                    I wouldn’t call this plot going out the window. Cassavetes was rather skilled in terms of form. He liked using genre, shaping it to his own ends.

                  2. I don’t recall the erotic scene in MULHOLLAND…? My own problem, I assume. I wasn’t really a fan of that one, although it has its merits.

                    …Unless you mean that acting scene? I dimly recall it. I preferred the lip-syncing audition scene, but I just love, love, love “I’ve Told Ev’ry Little Star”:


                    I’m shallow that way.

                    Life has taught me to never believe when someone says “I love you.” Not even Naomi Watts.

                    I didn’t see A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE. I love Cronenberg too much, too absolutely, to watch his newer films.

                    1. It’s when they are kissing in bed and then she tells her they love her.

                      What about when your parents say, “I love you?”

                      Oh you should see A HISTORY, you will like it, I think.

                    2. I don’t remember that scene in MD, but I also tend to forget scenes involving beds. (I have never slept in a bed so such scenes typically confound and distress me.)

                      And my parents have never told me that they love me—not in the way that I want and need them to. For more on this, please see my therapist. And my many volumes of unpublished poetry and fiction.

                      I am pretty certain that I will someday see A HISTORY, and I am pretty certain that I will not enjoy it (despite my wanting to). Just as I am convinced that I will someday die, and that I will not particularly enjoy that (despite my wanting to).

                      I wish it were otherwise. Some friends with dispositions similar to mine (stunted) have seen it and they despised it, so I’ve steered clear. This is doubtlessly irrational of me, but I love Cronenberg’s earlier movies so very much (they proved a salve for my childhood—I consider them works of realism); I’m not ready yet to dip into waters that may cause me to forget that.

                      But someday. When those memories, too, become a burden.

  4. Cassavetes was the anti-clever.
    I don’t find Franzen clever. “Good Neighbors”, his recent NYorker story was heartbreaking and beautiful and without an ounce of irony or show offiness.
    I know very little about Eggers but he did have a strong whiff of clever years ago when I sort of checked out his stuff…
    I haven’t read Hesse since high school but I think anything is possible with the enormous variety of places to be published now.

  5. I’ve read only the introduction so far, but I think that this is about to become my favorite book of the 21st century:


    From the intro:

    “Anyone who thinks linguistic extravagance in novels began with ULYSSES in 1922 hasn’t done his homework. […] The novel has been around since at least the 4th century BCE (Xenophon’s CRYOPAEDIA) and flourished in the Mediterranean area until the coming of the Christian Dark Ages. The earliest novels were Greek romances and Latin satires, where the plot was a mere convenience that allowed the author to engage in rhetorical display, literary criticism, sociopolitical commentary, digressions, and so on. It was an elastic form that made room for interpolated poems, stories within stories, pornography and parodies where the realistic and fantastic blended together. (In other words, ‘magic realism’ was not invented in the 1960s by the Latin American ‘Boom’ writers, but instead has /always/ been a property of the novel.) These novels peaked with Apuleius’s GOLDEN ASS and Heliodorus’s ETHIOPIAN STORY, and even the Christians produced a novel before the fall of Rome ended this phase of the novel’s history. (That Christian novel was called RECOGNITIONS, remembered today only because it may be the first instance of the Faust theme in Western literature, and because it gave its name to one of the greatest American novels of the 20th century.)” (2–4)

    More on this anon, assuredly.

  6. Realists like to repeat the claim that Gass and other literary formalists don’t believe in language’s communicative power. In HFW, Wood criticizes Gass’s formalist description of character as being “like elaborately informing us that a novel cannot really create an imagined world, because it is just a bound codex of paper pages” (see above).

    But check out this exchange between Gass and John Gardner, part of a much longer debate recorded in ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN:

    “Gardner: Writing of fiction builds a 747 that must obey certain physical laws in order to fly. I like Bill’s stuff, and even when he’s mean he writes so nice it don’t matter. Bill’s stuff, though, is so ornamented and the 747 so encrusted with jewels and finery and shiny trinkets it doesn’t get off the ground.

    Gass: Yeah, but the reader believes it does.”

    This is not far from Wood’s own praise for Saul Bellow’s “The Old System”. As I wrote in my first post:

    “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.”

    Both Wood and Gass sensibly acknowledge that writing is simultaneously artifice and the weaving of an illusion. Words communicate. But Wood then proceeds to insist that the author turn that artifice solely toward illusion: that she craft prose that “withdraw[s], like a good valet.”

    Why? …Because that’s what Wood personally likes. He doesn’t like the spell to be broken, unless he goes looking to analyze it. In other words, he’d foist his own preference upon everyone else. That is the entire thrust of his argument. It’s no more coherent or persuasive than the fantasy geek who insists that everyone read nothing but J.R.R. Tolkien.

    I like the fiction that Wood likes. I like Bellow, Roth, Flaubert. They’re great writers! And I like a lot more than that, too—highly stylized, artificial writing. Writers can do so many different things, explore so many different aspects of the craft.

    Wood implies that Gass’s view is narrow, but it is in fact so much broader than Wood’s—a “more Catholic” one, as Gass himself put it. Writing can do many, many, many, many things. Sometimes it’s illusionist. Sometimes we see the artifice clearly. Sometimes we go back and forth. It’s always been thus. Why deny it? Why eliminate, why pass over, the 99% of writing that isn’t pure illusionist realism?

    …I’d encourage people to check it out the whole transcript in ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN. Besides being a great discussion, it really puts the lie to the claim that Gass is defining the perimeter of his own navel.

    Which of course the man’s fiction also does. No one who believes that language is some purely solipsistic system could ever have written “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country.” Or THE TUNNEL.

    1. Here’s the actual passage in question from ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN; the one above is a paraphrase and it’s off (although the essential idea is the same):

      GASS: …There is a fundamental divergence about what literature is. I don’t want to subordinate beauty to truth and goodness. John and others have values which they think more important. Beauty, after all, is not very vital for most people. I think it is very important, in the cleanliness of the mind, to know why a particular thing is good. A lot of people judge, to use a crude example, the dinner good because of the amount of calories it has. Well, that is important if you don’t want to gain weight, but what has that got to do with the quality of the food? Moral judgments on art constantly confuse the quality of the food. I would also claim that my view is more catholic. It will allow in as good writers more than this other view will. John lets hardly anybody in the door.
      GARDNER: I love Bill’s writing. and I honestly think that Bill is the only writer in America that I would let in the door. For twenty-four years I have been screaming at him, sometimes literally screaming at him, saying, “Bill, you are wasting the greatest genius ever given to America by fiddling around when you could be doing big, important things.” What he can do with language is magnificent, but then he turns it against itself. Our definitions of beauty are different. I think language exists to make a beautiful and powerful apparition. He thinks you can make pretty colored walls with it. That’s unfair. But what I think is beautiful, he would think is not yet sufficiently ornate. The difference is that my 707 will fly and his is too encrusted with gold to get off the ground.
      GASS: There is always that danger. But what I really want is to have it sit there solid as a rock and have everybody think it is flying. (29–30)

      Gass, William and John Gardner. “A Debate.” Anything Can Happen: Interviews with Contemporary American Novelists. Ed. Tom LeClair and Larry McCaffrey. Urbana, University of Illinois Press: 1983. 20–31. Print.

      Also included in the collection are interviews with
      Donald Barthelme, Rosellen Brown, Robert Coover, Don DeLillo, E.L. Doctorow, Stanley Elkin, Raymond Federman, William Gass, John Irving, Diane Johnson, Steve Katz, Joseph McElroy, Toni Morrison, Tim O’Brien, and Ronald Sukenik, plus the transcript of a conversation between John Barth and John Hawkes.

      Highest possible recommendation.

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