The Real Thing

Reviewed by Christopher Tilghman
Sunday, July 27, 2008


By James Wood

Farrar Straus Giroux. 265 pp. $24

James Wood is a critic who is brilliant on the literature of the 19th and early 20th centuries and extremely harsh toward the writers of the postwar and early 21st. As a reviewer for the New Republic for many years, and since 2007 as a writer for the New Yorker, he has been unafraid to express his displeasure with the works of such heavyweights as Salman Rushdie and Don DeLillo. He is a controversial figure, but the title of his new book, How Fiction Works, suggests an attempt to step above the literary fray and to speculate more broadly on narrative art. It turns out that Wood remains a critic, not a theoretician, and the real question he is addressing in this book is not what makes fiction work, but what makes the best fiction work better than the rest.

Wood's models for the "best" in fiction will not surprise either his admirers or his detractors. He has his contemporary favorites, but the models are the masters: Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, James and above all, never far from view, Flaubert. He tells us in his preface that the book "asks theoretical questions but answers them practically," and by practical, he means analysis of techniques as illustrated by a series of generally superb line-by-line readings. This is a technical book, a primer of sorts, of interest to the practicing writer but probably most useful and illuminating for the serious reader who enjoys the fictive ride and wants to take a look under the hood.

For Wood, the story is not what marks the best of fiction. Significantly -- perhaps it is a deliberate provocation -- this book entitled How Fiction Works is silent on fundamental aspects of storytelling -- structure and plot -- and only slightly interested in other traditional areas of theoretical concern. His book is about judging fiction's success, which for Wood depends less on event and more on "its abilities to delight us with more formal properties, like pattern and language." When a novel has failed, he tells us, it has "failed to teach us how to adapt to its conventions, has failed to manage a specific hunger for its own characters, its own reality level."

So "how fiction works" for Wood is a question of how language can be successfully employed to manage this hunger, to achieve certain effects, some of them quite magical and most of them revolving around articulating, eliciting or manifesting the interior dramas of life. The examples he cites -- the use of metaphors and telling details, the lines of dialogue and depictions of thought -- are all very fine and perceptively analyzed. The great exploration of the modern novel, he argues, is this ever-more intimate journey into the consciousness of characters. From Jane Austen to James to Virginia Woolf, novelists have been perfecting the tools for dramatizing the psyche. Referring to a technique for representing thought that here might best be described as a kind of stream-of-consciousness, he says, "The history of the novel can be told as the development of free indirect style."

All of this is engagingly presented, and if for nothing more than the lucid explanation of the awkwardly named "free indirect style," I recommend it highly. But readers -- especially if those readers are young writers exploring their craft -- should recognize that Wood is being highly selective here; as he has his champions among writers, so he has his favorites among techniques. And on one point he appears inflexibly biased: The fiction he likes best is the fiction that tells itself. No noisy intrusions from the narrator; no transgressive postmodern authors appearing in their own creations; no eye-catching imagery that would tend to draw the reader's attention away from the scene. This is classic post-Jamesian realism, but some contemporary authors -- even some contemporary realists -- can be excused if they feel that Wood is tying their hands behind their backs.

Wood recognizes that he is leaving the contemporary author in rather a bind. He admits that "the Flaubertian legacy is a mixed blessing." As Brahms said of Beethoven, "You can't have any idea what it's like always to hear such a giant marching behind you." We can't imitate the great realism of the 19th century; if we do, we are left with the tired "commercial realism" of Updike and Graham Greene, two of Wood's whipping boys. "Novelistic methods are continually about to turn into mere convention and so [the writer] has to try to outwit that inevitable aging," he says, but in How Fiction Works, he doesn't give us examples of authors who are doing this successfully.

Still, in the last chapter, called "Truth, Convention, Realism," he looks for a way forward. " The real. . . is at the bottom of my inquiries," he says at the beginning of the book, and here at the end he suggests that it might be a good first step to "throw the term 'realism' overboard" and to admit that life is "beyond anything the novel [has] yet grasped." He quotes the experimental French author Alain Robbe-Grillet -- who himself was all but quoting the Russian Formalist critic Roman Jakobson -- making his famous statement that "all writers believe they are realists." But now we are all left facing the questions Jakobson posed so well a century ago. What is the real? What kind of language and syntax captures it? ยท

Christopher Tilghman teaches creative writing and literature at the University of Virginia.

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