How Fiction Works

By James Wood

One of the occupational hazards of regular book reviewing is that the resulting paper trail has a way of exposing one’s aesthetic prejudices and, yes, intellectual limitations. Given the nature of the business – writing a lot, in a hurry – a mental shorthand becomes unavoidable. We end up repeating ourselves, falling into a pre-set critical matrix or lens that we view literature through, constantly fingering the same reassuring touchstones.

James Wood is, as of this writing, a hot property in the world of book reviewing. So hot that he has now published a primer on how fiction works, meant for a general audience. It is an explication of just what he’s talking about when he talks about books. And while primarily a manifesto of taste, it is also, inevitably, an account of borrowings, repudiations, and affiliations. Wood is the kind of reviewer who likes to think in terms of tradition and the individual talent. Of course, the same can be done with his own critical attitudes.

We might begin with the Anxiety of Influence. The authoritative text on how fiction works has long been E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel (published in 1927). It’s safe to say that every schoolboy (and girl) today is familiar with Forster’s classic distinctions between flat and round characters, story and plot. Wood will allow Forster is “canonical for good reason” but “now seems imprecise.” This is anxiety writ large, as it is Wood’s lack of precision and tendency to become “thicketed in qualifications” that is his chief failing (and his acknowledgement of the same, I might add, doesn’t help). In turn, Forster’s imprecision turns out to be mostly in Wood’s head. For example, Wood doesn’t much like Forster’s distinguishing between flat and round characters. Wood’s analysis, however, simply plays with the terms, further muddying the water. Flat characters, we learn, aren’t really flat since they may represent essential human truths. And there are no round characters “because fictional characters, while very alive in their way, are not the same as real people.” Forster didn’t know this?

What Wood would like to do is a Forster of his own, and establish a new (and enduring) critical vocabulary. Spatial metaphors like flat and round, for example, are dismissed as inadequate, and should be replaced with a distinction between transparencies and opacities. Good luck with that. (It is, Wood admits, not very good but at least a step in the right direction.) Somewhat better is his notion of how a narrative “bends” towards its characters and their habits of speech. There is something to this. Also worth keeping are the terms habitual and dynamic detail, which are realized through the juxtaposition of different “time signatures.” However, replacing “the always problematic word ‘realism’ with the much more problematic word ‘truth’,” is a pointless gesture. As is the championing of “lifeness” (a word he simply must use as a substitute for “lifelikeness” or anything that smacks of naive realism). But to say that all great fiction has lifeness because it represents truth, and this is the book’s ringing conclusion, is empty verbiage. Of what work of fiction, or indeed work of art, could this not be said?

Another traditional critical maneuver on display is the establishment of a historical myth. For most critics such a myth takes the form of a bell curve, with a falling away from a period in the past of artistic or cultural unity into contemporary disorder. Wood’s historical myth isn’t quite the same, being less bell-shaped than bifurcated, separating prose fiction into BC and AD. Or BF and AF, since Wood’s messiah is Flaubert.

“There really is a time before Flaubert and a time after him,” Wood declares. This is because with Flaubert we have the advent or at least first flowering of free indirect discourse. For non-professionals, free indirect discourse (or style, or speech) is just a way of referring to writing that straddles the space between first-person limited and third-person omniscient (authorial) point of view. The result is an often subtle sense of indeterminacy that, among other things, allows for various ironic effects.

At which point you may say, “That’s interesting. But so what?” The what is the historical myth – that “the history of the novel can be told as the development of free indirect style.” Which, in turn, leads us back to the primacy of Flaubert. Those toilers before the advent of free indirect discourse (that is, BF) are like the lost souls Dante describes in his ante-hell – whatever their genius they are not of the saved. BF was fiction’s childhood, a now somewhat embarrassing period when writers like Henry Fielding reveled in the “essential juvenility of plot” (plot being the sort of 18th-century game that interferes with adult “moral analysis” and “final seriousness”). But AF does not imply a falling off. It doesn’t matter that Flaubert was superseded – so were the teachings of Jesus, after all, by the church fathers. What it does mean, however, is that Flaubert’s voice, his peculiar style and point of view, are the norm against which all other fiction must be tested.

I don’t agree with this, but I do like a critic who nails his colours to the mast and is consistent in his biases. Bias, however, can lead to blindness as well as insight. Nowhere is this more evident than in Wood’s championing of Saul Bellow. I last expressed my own take on Mr. Bellow’s writing, and his reputation, in my review of Martin Amis’s The War Against Cliché. In that book Amis referred to Bellow’s “exquisite ear” and then offered as proof some of the master’s typically mangled prose. Such an exquisite ear “embraces awkwardness, spurning elegance as a false lead,” fashioning sentences out of words “tumbling and rattling together in the order they choose.” How this adds up to a rhythmic, or even readable prose style escapes me. Nevertheless, Wood is in the same camp. Here is how he introduces a section on Bellow’s style:

Listen to the operation of an intensely musical ear in one of the greatest stylists of American prose, Saul Bellow, a writer who makes even the most fleet-footed – the Updikes, the DeLillos, the Roths – seem like monopodes.

An “intensely musical ear”! Even Amis didn’t go this far. And the evidence? It comes in a long passage full of the usual dull (because obvious), tortured, clunky hash, but what is interesting is the form Wood’s apologetics takes, which is much the same as Amis’s. The music of the passage resides in its very unmusicality. It sets out to imitate a character’s “flustered anxiety.” It has an “unexpected rhythm” that “never settles down.” Is prose that is flustered, anxious, unexpected, and unsettled in its rhythms musical? And when Wood pleads with us to read Bellow aloud to hear how the phrase “gigantically seaward” elongates the experience of a plane tilting, does he really want us to break it into equivalent syllables: “gi-gan-tic-ally sea-ward”? Could anyone stretch it out that way?

One may excuse Wood’s partisanship, as he is the editor of Bellow’s works for the prestigious Library of America series and thus a leading guardian of the great man’s reputation. Good luck with that, too. I have often thought that the guilty pleasures one hears other readers confess to are perhaps the best indicator of an author’s shot at immortality. Stephen King, I feel confident now, will last. The flip-side to this are the guilty pains, those authors one is supposed to admire but, really, one simply can’t bear to read. I’ve compiled quite a list of these over the years, but the one name that comes up most often in informal discussions is that of Saul Bellow. Rest easy, readers. We won’t be hearing about him for much longer.

I mentioned at the top of this review that Wood is a star in the reviewing world. I think this reputation is mainly due to the fact that he writes long reviews in an authoritative voice and wears a lot of reading lightly. Having a vocal fan base of well-situated cheerleaders also helps. But I think How Fiction Works should invite a reappraisal. In it Wood reveals a critical stance, particularly in his championing of realism, constructed out of platitudes. His historical model of fiction’s development (the triumph of free indirect discourse) is blinkered. And his close reading, as demonstrated in his celebration of Bellow, can be downright inept. We are forced to conclude that he has no ear for the rhythms of good prose at all. That this is a deafness he shares with such other luminaries of the reviewing world as Martin Amis and Michiko Kakutani is disconcerting to say the least. One finally wonders if anyone even cares about such things any more.

Review first published online March 16, 2009.