Wednesday, April 15, 2009

HOW FICTION WORKS by James Wood (not the creepy right-wing actor; that's James Woods)

James Wood's How Fiction Works, while clearly mistitled (it should be called How James Wood Thinks Fiction Works or maybe How Claire Messud's Fiction Works), is a well-written but unsurprisingly narrow work of criticism. The truth is that 'fiction' and narrative in general 'work' in many different ways, some diametrically opposed to the ways Wood's Austenite 19th-century touchstones work. His failure to realize that Pynchon, for example, 'works' tremendously well as a novelist outside the Leavisite 'serious' tradition but inside an older, livelier and more cosmopolitan comic tradition is indicative of a critical blindspot that should really disqualify Wood from commenting on contemporary literature, since most of it will be a priori unacceptable to his carefully cultivated 19th-century sensibility. A case can be made that Wood is the best 19-century critic alive...but that's hardly a compliment.

And just as I'm prepared to let that last sentence stand as my last word on Wood's book, he performs a lovingly detailed, exuberant close reading of a single sentence from Roth's Sabbath's Theater, and immediately I'm prepared to forgive him everything (or most of it). Wood is a wonderful writer, and his naive little book is interesting even when it's wrong. Also, I think I detect a slight softening of Wood's earlier resistance to postmodern fiction, and this paradoxically weakens the book, forcing Wood to argue for a 'realism' so broadly defined that it ultimately morphs into a vague idea of 'truth,' surely a position that needs no defending, even today.

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