Anne Fadiman, Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader

Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris is another Book About Books for my ongoing reading project–the longest-running one on this blog. As I’ve noted before, I began reading this kind of book as a deliberate exploration of the genre (what do people say?) and now I am also always curious about voice (how do they say it?).

Fadiman has lots of charming and interesting and erudite things to say about books, and about readers, but I actually found her voice a but off-putting. I think my reaction is related to one I’ve had before about writing that is really more about the writer than the subject–there seemed something faintly self-aggrandizing in her attention to just how very bookish her family is, how very particular they are about grammar, how very much she loves books … I know, I know. It’s her life, and I don’t doubt that she’s entirely sincere, and these are all things I appreciate or share myself. There was just something in the tone that I didn’t warm to.

As a result, I ended up liking best the essays that were more about other people. My unexpected favorite was “The P.M.’s Empire of Books”–unexpected because who knew that Gladstone could provide such delights? Fadiman herself certainly had no idea, until she discovered his tiny volume On Books and the Housing of Them. It’s not a book that brings unmitigated pleasure (“he may be the only man in history to have written a long-winded twenty-nine-page book”). But it turns out he had an endearingly insane passion for organizing his vast and ever-expanding book collection, and this led him to produce this intense instruction manual reflecting, as Fadiman says, the “quintessentially Victorian traits” of “Energy. Priggishness. Disciplined nature and control. Conceit. Probity. Neatness and passion for order. Authoritarianism. Singlemindedness.” (This list, by the way, comes from the index entry for “Gladstone, William Ewart,” in Roy Jenkins’s biography.) Gladstone’s mission was to solve the familiar problem of “too many books, too little space.” He did not shy away from particulars:

Mr. G. calculated that a library twenty by forty feet, with projecting bookcases three feet long, twelve inches deep, and nine feet high (“so that the upper shelf can be reached by the aid of a wooden stool of two steps not more than twenty inches high”), would accommodate between eighteen thousand and twenty thousand volumes. I trust his arithmetic. He had, after all, been Chancellor of the Exchequer. This shelving plan would suffice for the home of an ordinary gentleman, but for cases of extreme book-crowding, he proposed a more radical scheme in which “nearly two-thirds, or say three-fifths, of the whole cubic contents of a properly constructed apartment may be made a nearly solid mass of books.” It was detailed in a footnote so extraordinary it bears quoting nearly in full…

And it does, but to read it yourself, you’ll have to get the book–either one, as it turns out AbeBooks actually has a number of copies of Gladstone’s listed for sale. I’ll just give you the spoiler here: Fadiman reports that Gladstone’s proposed “system of rolling shelves … is used in the Bodleian Library’s Radcliffe Camera and at the New York Times Book Review, among many other places.” Now that’s a contribution to civilization!

Another essay I particularly appreciated because it seemed so very timely was “Nothing New Under the Sun,” which deals in a sly and charming way with the complicated question of literary borrowing–or stealing. The 9-page essay has 38 footnotes, all of which help to mess with our heads about “the sea-change[8] through which an aggregation of words, common property when scattered throughout a dictionary, is transformed into a stealable asset.” You all know what fn 8 says, right? This essay ends with an anecdote about a writer who, in 1988, was found to have “incorporated entire paragraphs” from someone else’s book into a New Yorker essay. The writer was, it turned out, a “compulsive plagiarist” who “borrowed repeatedly” yet “what a gifted writer he was!–he didn’t need to do it.” Sound familiar?

Lynne Sharon Schwartz, Ruined by Reading: A Life in Books

In the early days of Novel Readings, one of the things I was trying to figure out was how non-academics wrote about books, or (a slight variation) how academics wrote about books for non-academic audiences. So I read a lot of what I very ingeniously (OK, very literally) called “Books About Books“: Nick Hornby’s The Polysyllabic Spree, Jane Smiley’s 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, Sara Nelson’s So Many Books, So Little Time, John Sutherland’s How to Read a Novel, Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer, James Wood’s How Fiction Works. One that was always on my radar but that I somehow didn’t get hold of before I started focusing more on writing myself, instead of worrying about how other people wrote, was Ruined by Reading, by Lynne Sharon Schwartz. I was particularly interested in this one, because Schwartz is the author of one of my favorite novels of all time, Disturbances in the Field–and now I would add that I am a huge admirer of her earlier novel Leaving Brooklyn, which I read for the first time only a couple of years ago. I was happily surprised to see  a copy of Ruined by Reading on the book rack at the school’s Spring Fair flea market this year: though it’s too bad Fred (whoever he is) didn’t want to keep such a nice gift from “Nanny and Poppy,” I think they would be glad to know it ended up with someone who appreciates it properly. And I did appreciate it. It’s part memoir, part meditation on the motives for, effects of, and–above all–the experience of reading. It’s loosely organized, associative rather than strictly logical, but Schwartz is too interesting and thoughtful a writer (and reader) for it to feel rambling, even though it ranges somewhat unpredictably across its array of topics.

There were lots of bits I particularly enjoyed or that made me feel a readerly kinship with Schwartz–her comments about “the fear of being interrupted” while reading, for instance:

Sometimes at the peak of intoxicating pleasures, I am visited by a panic: the phone or doorbell will ring, someone will need me or demand that I do something. Of course I needn’t answer or oblige, but that is bside the point. The spell will have been broken. In fact the spell has already been broken. The panic is the interruption. I have interrupted myself.

Like her (maybe like you) I too “came to prefer reading late at night, when the intrusive world has gone to bed.” I understand, too, her love for Little Women–but unlike her, I never tried “copying it into a notebook” out of a fierce desire to possess it. “Only later did I understand,” she says, “that I wanted to have written Little Women, conceived and gestated it and felt its words delivered from my own pen.” I loved her closing peroration, about reading as an activity that matters because it is so completely, thoroughly “of the moment”: “the dynamism is all inside, an exalted, spiritual exercise so utterly engaging that we forget time and mortality along with all of life’s lesser woes, and simply bask in the everlasting present.” How amazing, “what a feat of transmission,” what is done by these marks on the the page. Because I had just been thinking quite a bit about choice in reading, though–about what to buy, what to read, why we make the choices we do, the section I appreciated the most was her discussion of “the convoluted agonies of choice.” Is it better to read contemporary books or “dead” books, to read by design or at random, to keep lists or to forget, to be a spider or a bee, a fox or a hedgehog? Ultimately, she concludes, “reading at random–letting desire lead–feels like the most faithful kind”:

In a bookstore, I leaf through the book next to the one I came to buy, and a sentence sets me quivering. I buy that one instead, or as well. A book comes in the mail and I begin it out of mild curiosity, to finish spellbound. A remark overheard on a bus reminds me of a book I meant to read last month. I hunt it up in the library and glance in passing at the old paperbacks on sale for twenty-five cents. There is the book so talked about in college–it was to have prepared me for life and here I have blundered through decades without it. Snatch it up quickly before it’s too late. And so what we read is as wayward and serendipitous as any taste or desire. Or perhaps randomness is not so random after all. Perhaps at every stage what we read is what we are, or what we are becoming, or desire.

Best of ‘Novel Readings’: James Wood, How Fiction Works

This review first went up in March 2008. My brooding over deep vs. broad reading has had me thinking again about Wood’s criticism, which I wrote admiringly about when I first discovered him in 2007. (This remarkably belated discovery speaks volumes, I think, of the divide between academic and public criticism.) I have also been thinking a lot about Becky Sharp, because in an essay for the July issue of Open Letters Monthly I lay out a more elaborate version of the argument I touch on here for her incidental significance to the novel in which she is so captivating a heroine. Both lines of thought led me back to take another look at this piece. I haven’t kept up with all of Wood’s reviews since, mostly because he and I often choose different books to pay attention to, but when I do (as with his recent piece on David Mitchell) I’m still struck by the elegant erudition of his language and analysis. Still, as this review shows, I have some sympathy with Lauren Elkin’s proposal that Wood is “a fine specimen of a book reviewer” but not exactly a “literary critic.” Not, as they used to say on Seinfeld, that there’s anything wrong with that.

How Fiction Works was also very ably reviewed in 2008 in Open Letters Monthly, by Dan Green of The Reading Experience.


The dust jacket describes How Fiction Works as Wood’s “first full-length book of criticism.” Anyone led by this blurb to expect sustained analysis supported by extensive research and illustration will be disappointed, as in fact How Fiction Works turns out to be essentially a ‘commonplace book,’ a collection of critical observations and insights of varying degrees of originality and sophistication, developed with varying degrees of care and detail. Wood acknowledges having set deliberate limits on his project, likening it in his introduction to Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, proposing to offer practical “writer’s anwers” to “a critic’s questions,” and admitting (though with no tone of apology) that he used only “the books at hand in [his] study.” To some extent I agree with other reviewers who consider it only fair to evaluate the book Wood wrote, rather than regretting he didn’t write another one. Yet even within the parameters Wood sets, I think there are grounds for wishing he, with his exceptional gifts and qualifications as both reader and critic, had not sold himself (or us) short in fulfilling them. Further, beginning with the invocation of Forster but going well beyond it, the book has pretensions to grandeur: for instance, also in his introduction Wood remarks that Barthes and Shklovsky “come to conclusions about the novel that seem to me interesting but wrong-headed, and this book conducts a sustained argument with them” (2). With gestures such as this, Wood claims an elevated stature for his critical contribution that is undermined by its casual construction and over-confident approach to scholarship. Though How Fiction Works provides many further proofs of Wood’s critical gifts and considerable erudition, I think it also proves that even the best practical critic flounders when working only with what he has already to hand or in mind.

Right off the bat I was irritated by the book’s structure. Wood has said that he felt liberated by using the numbered “paragraphs” or sections, but allowing yourself to skip from thought to thought in this way means letting yourself off the hook too often. Frequently in the margins of my students’ work I write “And so? Finish the thought!” One effect of crafting, first paragraphs, and then longer pieces as sustained wholes is that in working out the overall movement of your ideas and building in appropriately specific transitions, you confront both the logic and the further implications of your claims: the form pressures you to think better. Numbered bits, however, relieve that pressure: you can just stop with one topic and start the next, and as long as they are more or less related, you can claim to be producing a unified whole, even if you are only papering over gaps. In How Fiction Works, the breaks often seem unnecessary: a new number sets off what is really just the next sentence in the idea already unfolding. Most of the time, however, they are substitutes for careful transitions. They allow a certain stream-of-consciousness effect to creep in: that last bit reminds me of this exception to a general principle, or of a writer who also does that, or of another favourite excerpt, or of a time I went to a concert with my wife. Well, OK, I guess, and no doubt it would have been much more difficult to do a coherent chapter offering a theory of, say, fictional character, realism, or morality and the novel. And I suppose it’s true that non-academic readers don’t want the kind of detail and complexity such a full account of these topics would require. Even so, the numbered bits felt lazy to me. The footnotes too had an aimlessness about them. Some of them covered ideas or examples that seemed no less important to their chapter than most of the bits allowed their own numbered section (note 53 on p. 150, to give one example) while others appeared entirely unnecessary to the book (note 40 on p. 121, or note 41 on p. 124, for instance).

The TLS reviewer objects to Wood’s “grace notes”: “It is sometimes hard to distinguish a gasp of admiration for another’s skill from the contented sigh when the books in one’s study satisfy one’s own theories.” I shared this reaction, not least because “how fine that is” (139) is an expression of taste, not criticism. But Wood is a compelling reader of details, even passages. It’s when he makes broader assertions that he leaves himself more open to objections. For one thing, he has some governing assumptions about what fiction is for that he treats as universal rather than historically or theoretically specific. In his chapter on “Sympathy and Complexity,” for instance, as a footnote to his remarks on fiction as a means of extending our sympathies (the occasion for one of his shockingly few references to George Eliot!), he adds this:

We don’t read in order to benefit in this way from fiction. We read fiction because it pleases us, moves us, is beautiful, and so on,–because it is alive and we are alive. (129)

Well, maybe, but not everybody, and not all the time: for instance, most of the Victorian critics I have been editing for my Broadview anthology [now that the anthology is actually out, I wonder if Wood would like a copy–maybe I’ll send one along!] would not have recognized this highly aestheticized motive for novel reading. Is it fair, or even sensible, to say that they were simply wrong? Or to ignore how the formal developments of the Victorian novel furthered ends not adequately respected by Wood’s post-Jamesian formulations? His is in many respects a teleological account of the history of the novel. “Progress!” he exclaims after a quotation from Proust: “In Fielding and Defoe, even in the much richer Cervantes, revelation of this altering kind occurs at the level of plot” (125). But were Fielding and Defoe trying to do what Proust did and failing? How much better we might understand them if we allow them what James calls their “donnee.” “It is subtlety that matters,” he declares in his chapter on character; “subtlety of analysis, of inquiry, of concern, of felt pressure”: “I learn more about the consciousness of the soldier in Chekhov’s The Kiss than I do about the consciousness of Becky Sharpe [sic] in Vanity Fair.” But Becky Sharp’s consciousness is surely not the point of Vanity Fair; indeed, I argue in my own lectures [and now, in my essay in July’s Open Letters] that too close a focus on Becky risks diverting us from Thackeray’s grand gesture of holding the mirror up to ourselves, so that the novel becomes an opportunity for us to reflect on our own morality and mortality. “Was she guilty or not?” the narrator asks–and, remarkably, will not tell us, because ultimately she is not the point but the occasion, the device. Thackeray is not a failed Chekhov any more than Dickens is a failed Flaubert. To Wood, “the history of the novel can be told as the development of free indirect style” (58), but that history is partial and often distorting.

About the operations of free indirect discourse and the importance of knowing who ‘owns’ which words, on the other hand, Wood is typically astute. Here’s one place where examples from Middlemarch would have served him well, though at the risk of undermining his generalizations. Consider this passage from Chapter 1, for instance:

And how should Dorothea not marry? — a girl so handsome and with such prospects? Nothing could hinder it but her love of extremes, and her insistence on regulating life according to notions which might cause a wary man to hesitate before he made her an offer, or even might lead her at last to refuse all offers. A young lady of some birth and fortune, who knelt suddenly down on a brick floor by the side of a sick laborer and prayed fervidly as if she thought herself living in the time of the Apostles — who had strange whims of fasting like a Papist, and of sitting up at night to read old theological books! Such a wife might awaken you some fine morning with a new scheme for the application of her income which would interfere with political economy and the keeping of saddle-horses: a man would naturally think twice before he risked himself in such fellowship. Women were expected to have weak opinions; but the great safeguard of society and of domestic life was, that opinions were not acted on. Sane people did what their neighbors did, so that if any lunatics were at large, one might know and avoid them.

Think how much is lost on a reader who improperly identifies the source of that word “naturally”–or the last two sentences altogether!

Wood is good on the telling detail as well as the quality he calls “thisness”: “any detail that draws abstraction towards itself and seems to kill that abstraction with a puff of palpability” (54). But again, when he moves into prescription, he becomes less persuasive, as when he objects to the “layer of gratuitous detail” in 19th-century realist fiction. Again, the challenge is in defining “gratuitous” (as, clearly, Wood himself is well aware), but he can’t propose any principle except, perhaps, his idea that “insignificant” details avoid irrelevance if they are “significantly insignificant” (68). After recounting an incident in which he and his wife had “invented entirely different readings” of a violinist’s frown at a concert, he claims that a “good novelist would have let that frown alone, and would have let our revealing comments alone, too: no need to smother this little scene in explanation” (72). Again, well, maybe. I can imagine at least one “good novelist” who might have done great things with their “different readings” of that little moment, perhaps even using their “revealing comments” as a chance to reveal even more about perception and reality as well as human relationships (“these things are a parable…”). Doesn’t it depend on what your novel is about and on the formal methods you are using to realize those goals?

I’d like to return before I close to the “Sympathy and Complexity” chapter, because this is a topic close to my heart, one on which I have spent a lot of my own critical energy recently, and one I expected Wood to handle particularly well. “Perfunctory” is the best word I can think of to describe it. I’ve mentioned already his dehistoricizing assumption that “we” don’t read in order to receive moral benefits. I doubt this is true in practice, and I also question the separation he implies between moral and aesthetic readings. Here is a case in which even a little research outside “the books at hand in [his] own study” would have immeasurably enriched his discussion: Wayne Booth’s The Company We Keep, for instance, would have helped him complicate exactly that separation. And the conversation about how fiction might do “what [Bernard] Williams wanted moral philosophy to do” (135) has many participants besides Williams: Martha Nussbaum comes promptly to mind. Further, not all novels avoid providing “philosophical answers”; he replicates Nussbam’s error in generalizing about “the novel,” but as a professional novel reader, he should know better.

Here the hybrid character of How Fiction Works proves a genuine weakness, I think. This chapter is not a full, responsible, or authoritative inquiry into its subject. Of course, it does not pretend to be (remember, the book promises only “a writer’s answers” to “a critic’s questions”). But then how should we evaluate it? Doesn’t Wood do even his non-specialist audience a disservice by taking up complicated subjects on which there already exists a rich body of scholarship and offering his own fairly casual observations with the confidence of real expertise? What a much greater contribution it would be to distill that complex material and present it accessibly! To grab what’s at hand and say just what comes to mind bespeaks an enviable but also problematic degree of confidence. And while the non-expert reader is in no position to object, the expert reader is easily deflected with the excuse that she is not the intended audience…

After I read How Fiction Works I re-read some of my collection of Wood’s essays, including his reviews of Never Let Me Go, Saturday, and Brick Lane. This is really wonderful stuff, as I have remarked before; I admire it wholeheartedly for its critical acuity, its literary elegance, and its moral seriousness. But considering How Fiction Works strictly as one among many books about books (and Wood is wrong, or perhaps disingenuous, when he says “there are surprisingly few books” of this kind about fiction [1]), I think there are many better choices available. I continue to recommend David Lodge’s The Art of Fiction, for instance, which takes up many of the same topics as Wood, though under a less grandiose umbrella of prescriptive claims. I think it’s an exciting development that Wood has landed a job in Harvard’s English Department. In taking this now unconventional route from journalism to the academy, he is following in the footsteps of many eminent Victorian critics (David Masson, for instance). But considering how bitterly difficult it is for those following the established professional route to land any academic job at all, it’s frustrating to think that he may not be held to anything like the same standard of rigour as many critics far less lauded and applauded. Here’s hoping that he has more books in him as good as The Broken Estate.

(Original post cross-posted to The Valve.)

Jane Smiley, 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel

From the Novel Readings Archive

One of the reasons I began blogging in the first place was to experiment with writing about books in a non-academic way. One of the first blogging projects I took up, therefore (because research is an academic habit that is hard to give up), was reviewing examples of non-academic writing about books–books about books, but written for actual readers. I read Nick Hornby’s The Polysyllabic Spree, for instance, which was the subject of one of my earliest blog posts, and Sara Nelson’s So Many Books, So Little Time, and Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer, and John Sutherland’s How to Read a Novel, among others. Unlike OLM’s Sam Sacks, who thought Jane Smiley’s 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel was a “low point” in the genre of “books about the culture of reading” (to Sacks, Smiley comes across as “a supercilious book-club leader uttering inanities over a demitasse cup”–ouch!), I thought Smiley’s was one of the best of the bunch.* It seems apt, then, to continue my series of posts resurrected from the Novel Readings archives with my own review of this particular book about books.

*Continuing in a nostalgic vein, my comment politely disagreeing with him about Smiley (which seems to have been lost in the move to the new OLM layout)  was one of my earliest interactions with Open Letters. And I also read Michael Dirda’s Classics for Pleasure, the main subject of his review, for my ‘books about books’ project but didn’t write it up because I thought Sam was completely right (and completely articulate, of course) about that one.


Of the array of ‘books about books’ aimed at general audiences that I’ve read in the last few months, Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel is by far the most intelligent and engaging. Smiley writes as a novelist primarily, reflecting often on her own experiences and motivation as an author, but she also writes as a scholar, a dedicated reader, and an insightful literary critic who can capture a significant idea about a writer or a text in a well-crafted sentence or two. Here, to give just one of many examples, is Smiley on Anthony Trollope:

Trollope was a great analyst of marriage as a series of decisions that turn into a relationship and then, as time goes by and the children grow up, into history and architecture; simultaneously, he was the great analyst of politics as it devolves into feelings and their effects on the nation. If we say that Trollope is the ultimate realist, we are recognizing that his work as well as his life recognized more points of view, more endeavors, more sensations, more things to think about and reasons to think about them than almost any other novelist; that the technique he developed for balancing the attractions of these sensations–in sentences, paragraphs, chapters, characters, and entire books–beautifully mimics the way many people construct their identities moment by moment. (133)

Not only is that analysis elegantly put–I love the description of marriage moving from something intangible and negotiable into something with the solidity of a building–but every reader of Trollope will appreciate how well Smiley has captured the distinctive qualities of Trollope’s accomplishment in something like the Palliser novels or the Barchester chronicles.

I was particularly impressed with Smiley’s engagement with the moral implications of some of the novels she considers. Her comparative discussion of Wuthering Heights and de Sade’s Justine (in which Bronte’s novel comes off much the worse) is an excellent example of ‘ethical criticism’: like Wayne Booth, Martha Nussbaum, and others (though without explicit reference to any theoretical work in this area) Smiley illustrates that elements far more complex than a novel’s content need to be considered when evaluating its ethical import:

Justine shows that whatever an author’s motives for depicting horror, the form of the novel itself molds the depiction. Ostensibly shocking and immoral, Justine actually promotes a certain moral point of view–that integrity and virtue can be retained and recognized in the face of relentless suffering. In addition, to expose secret corruption is to challenge its existence because of the nature of the novel as a common and available commodity. (111)[F]ar more shockingly cruel, in its way, than Justine is that staple of middle school, Wuthering Heights. No one has ever considered Wuthering Heights to be unsuitable for young girls; most women read it for the first time when they are thirteen or fourteen. There are no sex scenes in Wuthering Heights. . . . At the same time, there are no beatings or shootings in Wuthering Heights. The only blood is shed by a ghost in a dream.

At the same time, the theme of Wuthering Heights is that any betrayal, any cruelty, any indifference to others, including spouses or children, is, if not justifiable, then understandable, in the context of sufficient passion. . . .

Do the characters of Wuthering Heights perpetrate even a grame of the harm that the characters of Justine do? No. Does Wuthering Heights seem in the end to be a nastier novel than Justine does? Yes. They are similar in that both are unrelieved and both have endings that are happy relative to the rest of the novel. But it is more disheartening to read about Heathcliff’s domestic sins than it is to see the crimes of the ruling class exposed, because the exposure of political crimes seems like a step towards ameliorating them, while Heathcliff’s cruelties are specifically directed at those he should be nurturing, and only chance intervenes between him and his victims . . . . The paradox is that novelists ended up exploring the rich subject of the morality of interpersonal relationships only to discover that while, on the one hand, this subject was safe from the danger of sex and violence, on the other hand, achieving in such plots the satisfying feeling of redress is difficult if not impossible. (114-5)

The specifics of her argument will no doubt strike other readers as debatable, but to me her analysis is an effective example of the Victorian critical premise that I have been exploring in my research: that it is not the subject but its treatment that determines a novel’s moral character. The conclusion to this particular section also, I think, effectively captures the problem of the unsatisfying endings that are so common in 19th-century marriage plots (Tenant of Wildfell Hall, for instance, or Middlemarch): the novels expose and critique systemic problems with marriage and the condition of women but struggle to resolve them–or (as with Jane Eyre or The Mill on the Floss) resolve them by abandoning realism. Continue reading

Posner on the “Decline of Literary Criticism”

In the most recent issue of Philosophy and Literature, Richard Posner reviews Ronan McDonald’s The Death of the Critic (discussed previously here):

The problem with “criticism conceived as magistrate”—the problem that McDonald not only does not solve, but does not acknowledge—is that there are no objective criteria of aesthetic distinction. The reason is that there is nothing that all great works of literature have in common but lesser works of literature do not. When critics propose criteria that they think will distinguish the great from the non-great, they end up narrowing the canon of great literature in arbitrary ways, as T. S. Eliot attempted to do with Milton and Shelley. There is no need to develop a litmus test for great literature. Critics can point to the features of literary works that they like or dislike without assuming the authority to tell people what they should read. And Croce was right: you don’t need evaluative critics in order to have a “canon” of great literature. The canon evolves in Darwinian fashion; writers compete, and the works that are best adapted to the cultural environment flourish.

I fear that McDonald has succumbed to the cliché that the enemy of my enemy is my friend: the cultural studies crowd is against evaluative criticism, so McDonald is for it, provided it is objective—but he does not show how literary criticism can be objective. But the problem is not that modern-day literary criticism is not evaluative; it is that literary criticism aimed at increasing the readership of great literature has been displaced by literary theory, on the one hand, and by literary scholarship for literary scholars only . . . on the other hand.

Though I might take issue with some of Posner’s specific points, I agree with him that “the dearth of evaluative criticism” is not what accounts for the diminished significance of literary criticism. He concludes that “If there were less pretentious literary theory and no evaluative criticism, but more readable literary criticism in the style of Cleanth Brooks or F. R. Leavis, the literary culture would be in a lot better shape than it is.” I’ve been reading a fair number of books that attempt to offer “readable literary criticism“; it’s not that such books aren’t out there, but perhaps that often they aren’t often as intellectually challenging or rhetorically exhilirating as the examples Posner gives–often they seem to me to underestimate their intendend audience. The two books I’m reviewing on the 19th-century novel (Case & Shaw and Levine) are actually pretty good options of this kind, but they are overtly aimed at a student audience and so unlikely, I’m guessing, to reach very far out into the world. I admit, “readable literary criticism” with the effects Posner describes (work that “quickens” the reader’s interest in reading literary works) is pretty much the kind I would like to write one day… “literary criticism that helps people understand and enjoy serious literature,” which is why the kinds of debates he and McDonald are engaged in are of such interest to me.

Recent Reading

As the new term gets underway, I feel my opportunities for “leisure” (a.k.a. “not required”) reading slipping away–not that I’m sorry, of course, to have an excuse to read Bleak House again, or The Remains of the Day (too late now to worry that the latter is way too subtle a pleasure for my first-year students!). In the interstices of the past two hectic weeks, though, I have enjoyed reading a few things just for the sake of it.

A wise friend lent me both David Lodge’s Thinks…, which provided much amusement, and Nuala O’Faolain’s Are You Somebody?, which provoked much reflection. I’ve fallen quite behind with Lodge’s books, maybe because academic satires aren’t quite as funny when you are struggling with shaping your own academic life to your liking. Maybe now I’ll do some catching up, or at least reread Nice Work. Thinks… reminded me of another of my old favourites, Alison Lurie’s Foreign Affairs, though Lurie’s novel allows for a bit more sentimentality. I was rereading O’Faolain’s novel My Dream of You this summer and, again, enjoying especially the contemporary story (which, as in Byatt’s Possession–an inevitable comparison, I suppose–alternates with the 19thC story being investigated, or, in this case, largely imagined, by the 20thC characters), and I found O’Faolain’s memoir had very much the same wry yet elegaic tone, particularly in its descriptions of Irish landscapes, but also in its treatment of getting older. “How do people arrange to love their ageing selves?” O’Faolain asks. How indeed. I was particularly interested in her frustration with the cultural pressures towards romance–“reaching for me, trying to ruin me.” Her description of her Christmas alone moved me, with its carefully planned pleasures, its undertone of melancholy and its moments of being surprised by joy. And then it’s writing, she goes on to say, that fills “the emptiness.”

There are links between O’Faolain’s grasping after a storyline for herself that is not a romance plot and some of the main lines in Maureen Corrigan’s Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading (which, appropriately, I tried to read most of while on airplanes with two children who seemed to have an unending list of needs and wants that only I could satisfy!). I’d like to write at more length about Corrigan’s book than I have time for tonight, as it is an interesting variation on the “books about books” I’ve written up before. For now, I’m struck by Corrigan’s observations about the absence of stories about working, or “intelligent or bookish” women in the classic novels she studied. (Of course, social and historical constraints–and the literary constraint of realism–makes such plots unlikely until the 20th century, but there were certainly intelligent, bookish women throughout the centuries. As many feminist critics have pointed out, George Eliot lived a life her own fiction can seem to imply is either impossible or undesirable.) I was thinking Gaudy Night during this part of Corrigan’s discussion, and sure enough, Sayers’s novel is a key example in the next chapter. Corrigan is another critic who likes to take shots at her academic experience (“I had to pay a price for the self-knowledge I gained in graduate school: the price was being in graduate school”). There’s a lot of interesting bookish discussion in the book, though it is primarily a memoir; I found her comments on mystery and detective fiction of particular interest.

Now I’m reading Peter Robinson’s Friend of the Devil; next up is Penelope Lively’s Perfect Happines, which I “borrowed” from my mother’s wonderful book collection in Vancouver to compensate for not, after all, having been able to do any book shopping there. (Next time, it’s Duthie’s or bust!) Lively’s Moon Tiger is another of my long-time favourites.

James Wood, How Fiction Works

(Cross-posted to The Valve. Thank you to the regular Valve folks for the invitation to do some guest posting!)

The dust jacket describes How Fiction Works as Wood’s “first full-length book of criticism.” Anyone led by this blurb to expect sustained analysis supported by extensive research and illustration will be disappointed, as in fact How Fiction Works turns out to be essentially a ‘commonplace book,’ a collection of critical observations and insights of varying degrees of originality and sophistication, developed with varying degrees of care and detail. Wood acknowledges having set deliberate limits on his project, likening it in his introduction to Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, proposing to offer practical “writer’s anwers” to “a critic’s questions,” and admitting (though with no tone of apology) that he used only “the books at hand in [his] study.” To some extent I agree with other reviewers who consider it only fair to evaluate the book Wood wrote, rather than regretting he didn’t write another one. Yet even within the parameters Wood sets, I think there are grounds for wishing he, with his exceptional gifts and qualifications as both reader and critic, had not sold himself (or us) short in fulfilling them. Further, beginning with the invocation of Forster but going well beyond it, the book has pretensions to grandeur: for instance, also in his introduction Wood remarks that Barthes and Shklovsky “come to conclusions about the novel that seem to me interesting but wrong-headed, and this book conducts a sustained argument with them” (2). With gestures such as this, Wood claims an elevated stature for his critical contribution that is undermined by its casual construction and over-confident approach to scholarship. Though How Fiction Works provides many further proofs of Wood’s critical gifts and considerable erudition, I think it also proves that even the best practical critic flounders when working only with what he has already to hand or in mind.

Right off the bat I was irritated by the book’s structure. Wood has said that he felt liberated by using the numbered “paragraphs” or sections, but allowing yourself to skip from thought to thought in this way means letting yourself off the hook too often. Frequently in the margins of my students’ work I write “And so? Finish the thought!” One effect of crafting, first paragraphs, and then longer pieces as sustained wholes is that in working out the overall movement of your ideas and building in appropriately specific transitions, you confront both the logic and the further implications of your claims: the form pressures you to think better. Numbered bits, however, relieve that pressure: you can just stop with one topic and start the next, and as long as they are more or less related, you can claim to be producing a unified whole, even if you are only papering over gaps. In How Fiction Works, the breaks often seem unnecessary: a new number sets off what is really just the next sentence in the idea already unfolding. Most of the time, however, they are substitutes for careful transitions. They allow a certain stream-of-consciousness effect to creep in: that last bit reminds me of this exception to a general principle, or of a writer who also does that, or of another favourite excerpt, or of a time I went to a concert with my wife. Well, OK, I guess, and no doubt it would have been much more difficult to do a coherent chapter offering a theory of, say, fictional character, realism, or morality and the novel. And I suppose it’s true that non-academic readers don’t want the kind of detail and complexity such a full account of these topics would require. Even so, the numbered bits felt lazy to me. The footnotes too had an aimlessness about them. Some of them covered ideas or examples that seemed no less important to their chapter than most of the bits allowed their own numbered section (note 53 on p. 150, to give one example) while others appeared entirely unnecessary to the book (note 40 on p. 121, or note 41 on p. 124, for instance).

The TLS reviewer objects to Wood’s “grace notes”: “It is sometimes hard to distinguish a gasp of admiration for another’s skill from the contented sigh when the books in one’s study satisfy one’s own theories.” I shared this reaction, not least because “how fine that is” (139) is an expression of taste, not criticism. But Wood is a compelling reader of details, even passages. It’s when he makes broader assertions that he leaves himself more open to objections. For one thing, he has some governing assumptions about what fiction is for that he treats as universal rather than historically or theoretically specific. In his chapter on “Sympathy and Complexity,” for instance, as a footnote to his remarks on fiction as a means of extending our sympathies (the occasion for one of his shockingly few references to George Eliot!), he adds this:

We don’t read in order to benefit in this way from fiction. We read fiction because it pleases us, moves us, is beautiful, and so on,–because it is alive and we are alive. (129)

Well, maybe, but not everybody, and not all the time: for instance, most of the Victorian critics I have been editing for my Broadview anthology would not have recognized this highly aestheticized motive for novel reading. Is it fair, or even sensible, to say that they were simply wrong? Or to ignore how the formal developments of the Victorian novel furthered ends not adequately respected by Wood’s post-Jamesian formulations? His is in many respects a teleological account of the history of the novel. “Progress!” he exclaims after a quotation from Proust: “In Fielding and Defoe, even in the much richer Cervantes, revelation of this altering kind occurs at the level of plot” (125). But were Fielding and Defoe trying to do what Proust did and failing? How much better we might understand them if we allow them what James calls their “donnee. “It is subtlety that matters,” he declares in his chapter on character; “subtlety of analysis, of inquiry, of concern, of felt pressure”: “I learn more about the consciousness of the soldier in Chekhov’s The Kiss than I do about the consciousness of Becky Sharpe [sic] in Vanity Fair.” But Becky Sharp’s consciousness is surely not the point of Vanity Fair; indeed, I argue in my own lectures that too close a focus on Becky risks diverting us from Thackeray’s grand gesture of holding the mirror up to ourselves, so that the novel becomes an opportunity for us to reflect on our own morality and mortality. “Was she guilty or not?” the narrator asks–and, remarkably, will not tell us, because ultimately she is not the point but the occasion, the device. Thackeray is not a failed Chekhov any more than Dickens is a failed Flaubert. To Wood, “the history of the novel can be told as the development of free indirect style” (58), but that history is partial and often distorting. (About the operations of free indirect discourse and the importance of knowing who ‘owns’ which words, on the other hand, Wood is typically astute. Here’s one place where examples from Middlemarch would have served him well, though at the risk of undermining his generalizations. Consider this passage from Chapter 1, for instance:

And how should Dorothea not marry? — a girl so handsome and with such prospects? Nothing could hinder it but her love of extremes, and her insistence on regulating life according to notions which might cause a wary man to hesitate before he made her an offer, or even might lead her at last to refuse all offers. A young lady of some birth and fortune, who knelt suddenly down on a brick floor by the side of a sick laborer and prayed fervidly as if she thought herself living in the time of the Apostles — who had strange whims of fasting like a Papist, and of sitting up at night to read old theological books! Such a wife might awaken you some fine morning with a new scheme for the application of her income which would interfere with political economy and the keeping of saddle-horses: a man would naturally think twice before he risked himself in such fellowship. Women were expected to have weak opinions; but the great safeguard of society and of domestic life was, that opinions were not acted on. Sane people did what their neighbors did, so that if any lunatics were at large, one might know and avoid them.

Think how much is lost on a reader who improperly identifies the source of that word “naturally”–or the last two sentences altogether!)

Wood is good on the telling detail as well and the quality he calls “thisness”: “any detail that draws abstraction towards itself and seems to kill that abstraction with a puff of palpability” (54). But again, when he moves into prescription, he becomes less persuasive, as when he objects to the “layer of gratuitous detail” in 19th-century realist fiction. Again, the challenge is in defining “gratuitous” (as, clearly, Wood himself is well aware), but he can’t propose any principle except, perhaps, his idea that “insignificant” details avoid irrelevance if they are “significantly insignificant” (68). After recounting an incident in which he and his wife had “invented entirely different readings” of a violinist’s frown at a concert, he claims that a “good novelist would have let that frown alone, and would have let our revealing comments alone, too: no need to smother this little scene in explanation” (72). Again, well, maybe. I can imagine at least one “good novelist” who might have done great things with their “different readings” of that little moment, perhaps even using their “revealing comments” as a chance to reveal even more about perception and reality as well as human relationships (“these things are a parable…”). Doesn’t it depend on what your novel is about and on the formal methods you are using to realize those goals?

I’d like to return before I close to the “Sympathy and Complexity” chapter, because this is a topic close to my heart, one on which I have spent a lot of my own critical energy recently, and one I expected Wood to handle particularly well. “Perfunctory” is the best word I can think of to describe it. I’ve mentioned already his dehistoricizing assumption that “we” don’t read in order to receive moral benefits. I doubt this is true in practice, and I also question the separation he implies between moral and aesthetic readings. Here is a case in which even a little research outside “the books at hand in [his] own study” would have immeasurably enriched his discussion: Booth’s The Company We Keep, for instance, would have helped him complicate exactly that separation. And the conversation about how fiction might do “what [Bernard] Williams wanted moral philosophy to do” (135) has many participants besides Williams (Martha Nussbaum comes promptly to mind!). Further, not all novels avoid providing “philosophical answers” (here, he replicates Nussbam’s error in generalizing about “the novel,” but as a professional novel reader, he should know better). Here the hybrid character of How Fiction Works proves a genuine weakness, I think. This chapter is not a full, responsible, or authoritative inquiry into its subject. Of course, it does not pretend to be (remember, the book promises only “a writer’s answers” to “a critic’s questions”). But then how should we evaluate it? Doesn’t Wood do even his non-specialist audience a disservice by taking up complicated subjects on which there already exists a rich body of scholarship and offering his own fairly casual observations with the confidence of real expertise? What a much greater contribution it would be to distill that complex material and present it accessibly! To grab what’s at hand and say just what comes to mind bespeaks an enviable but also problematic degree of confidence. And while the non-expert reader is in no position to object, the expert reader is easily deflected with the excuse that she is not the intended audience…

After I read How Fiction Works I re-read some of my collection of Wood’s essays, including his reviews of Never Let Me Go, Saturday, and Brick Lane. This is really wonderful stuff, as I have remarked before; I admire it wholeheartedly for its critical acuity, its literary elegance, and its moral seriousness. But considering How Fiction Works strictly as one among many books about books (and Wood is wrong, or perhaps disingenuous, when he says “there are surprisingly few books” of this kind about fiction [1]), I think there are many better choices available. I continue to recommend David Lodge’s The Art of Fiction, for instance, which takes up many of the same topics as Wood, though under a less grandiose umbrella of prescriptive claims. I think it’s an exciting development that Wood has landed a job in Harvard’s English Department. In taking this now unconventional route from journalism to the academy, he is following in the footsteps of many eminent Victorian critics (David Masson, for instance). But considering how bitterly difficult it is for those following the established professional route to land any academic job at all, it’s frustrating to think that he may not be held to anything like the same standard of rigour as many critics far less lauded and applauded. Here’s hoping that he has more books in him as good as The Broken Estate.